Archaeology out there - Council for British Archaeology

Archaeology Matters

Best Practice

All archaeological discoveries have the potential to add to our knowledge, but for this to happen, any new finds must be reported and recorded so that the information they offer can be shared. The CBA best practice guidelines show that as long as they remain safe then it is better to leave the evidence for future generations to investigate with better techniques and with better-informed questions to ask.

ITV1 Britain's Secret Treasures panel of experts

Britain's Secret Treasures

The Council for British Archaeology has been working in collaboration with ITV, the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme on ITV1’s new series Britain’s Secret Treasures to ensure that everyone fully understands all the issues involved in the search for 'treasure' and can seek expert advice and guidance. 'If you are thinking of rushing out to buy a metal detector to search an area near you and seek out your very own ‘treasure’, CBA Director Mike Heyworth comments, 'there are reasons why you should think again or ask the experts.'

'New discoveries have a lot to tell us about past human behaviour, but this can only happen if we record the fullest information about the finds and the place they are found. Evidence from the past is fragile and should not be damaged or lost in an attempt to generate financial profit for individuals. Britain’s treasures should be available for everyone to understand and appreciate, and kept safe and available for long-term study.'

Best practice guidance

Read our guidelines to find out more about best practice. If in doubt - it's always best to ask the experts.

Contact us using the to discuss any aspect of the search for finds, or the use of metal detectors, and we will be happy to guide you.

What is a site?

Britain’s landscape is full of archaeological sites. Many of these are not obvious, consisting of buried features like in-filled ditches and pits; structural remains such as walls, floors, or wells; or simply patterns of debris. Together, such traces contribute historical knowledge about where and how people lived.

Why should we leave archaeology buried?

Archaeologists try to piece together information about the lives of people in the past from small fragments of evidence and it is important that we gather as much evidence as we can when opportunities present themselves. But in many cases, it is better to wait, to leave objects and other evidence in the ground where it has been lying safely for hundreds or thousands of years.

As long as it remains safe then it is better to leave the evidence for future generations to investigate with better techniques and with better-informed questions to ask.

Usually, intervention is only justified if the evidence is at risk of being lost or damaged, through development, climate change, or agricultural practices. In this case, any excavation work has to be carried out carefully to ensure that we extract as many clues as possible not just about any objects that are found, but about the full circumstances of the way in which they were initially buried and any materials or evidence buried in association with them.

Why should I leave finds where I find them?

All archaeological discoveries have the potential to add to our knowledge, but for this to happen, any new finds must be reported and recorded so that the information they offer can be shared. Also, the place (or context) in which any find is made will yield additional knowledge, as will any materials found in association with the find.

Any disturbance of the relationship between finds and the features they relate to within the ground will result in a loss of knowledge unless it is undertaken carefully using archaeological techniques and with full recording.

Digging for objects can destroy archaeological evidence. In some parts of the country, for instance, top-soils are thin, and archaeological remains may be close to the surface. Even objects apparently adrift in plough-soil have an archaeological setting. Some items will be casual losses, but these can still add to our knowledge.

Many other items will come from archaeological sites (e.g. settlements, cemeteries, buildings) remains of which may survive under the plough-soil or nearby. The cumulative plotting of individual finds can build up into historical patterns. This is why even a single find can add to our existing knowledge.

How do I report a find?

Report any object that is undisturbed in its primary context - in a container, or below the plough-soil - to the landowner and (with their agreement, unless it is a legal requirement) to an appropriate archaeologist. It is important to leave the find where it is so that the setting and circumstances can be assessed by an archaeologist.

Protected sites

Anyone setting out to seek out new discoveries from the ground needs to be aware of:

the legal status of protected sites, such as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, legal issues about the ownership of finds, which vary across the UK, and legal requirements to report certain categories of finds.

In the United Kingdom most of the key nationally important archaeological sites are protected by law and permission is required from appropriate authorities before they can be investigated if that might involve damage, however modest, or removal of material from the site.

Treasure trove guidelines

In some parts of the UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) any objects found in the ground, with some exceptions of recent date, have to be reported to the appropriate authorities. In Scotland contact the Treasure Trove unit in the National Museum of Scotland.

In England and Wales there are fewer legal restrictions, unless items are classified by law as Treasure, but the views of the landowner are always important so relevant permissions need to be gained, and there are codes of best practice for archaeological work and for using equipment such as a metal detector to search for finds.

Anyone with a genuine interest in history will follow these best practice principles, and any members of the public who find objects of potential archaeological interest should always take them to a local museum or (in England and Wales) to a local Finds Liaison Officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The laws and ethical codes that are in place apply to everyone, archaeologists as well as members of the public, and the key issue is often not the tools to be used but the attitude and intentions of the individuals undertaking the work.

Code for Responsible Metal Detecting

The Council for British Archaeology accepts responsible metal detecting undertaken in full compliance with the law which adds to our knowledge about the past. In England and Wales anyone setting out to use a metal detector to seek out archaeological finds should follow the Code for Responsible Metal Detecting which is supported by most national archaeological and detecting organisations.

Treasure seekers

Individuals who seek out archaeological finds for personal financial gain or to amass a private collection without reporting their discoveries inevitably damage our potential understanding of the past. Once lost, this information is lost forever and the Council for British Archaeology deplores damaging activity by ‘treasure hunters’ and criminals which is highly detrimental to the safeguarding and understanding of our heritage.

Team up with an archaeology group

The best way to extract evidence from the ground is via controlled, high-standard archaeological excavation. There are many groups across the UK who are capable of such high standards, both in the professional and voluntary sector, and it is best to join up with a local archaeology group if you have a passion for history and heritage.

Taking your interest further

If you're fascinated by Britain’s archaeology why not join the Council for British Archaeology and link up with like-minded enthusiasts who have a passion for developing our understanding of our archaeological heritage. There are also a number of amateur archaeology groups and societies who welcome new members across the UK.


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