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Archaeology Matters

Archaeology is about knowledge, not treasure

If you watched Britain’s Secret Treasures on ITV1 last night, you might be forgiven for thinking there are gold objects beneath our feet all over the UK just waiting to be dug up. Of course in reality, whilst there is evidence of the past all around us, it is rarely made of precious metal - but that doesn’t mean it is any less fascinating or significant to our understanding of the way our ancestors lived.

Photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme

The Council for British Archaeology has been working in collaboration with ITV, the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme on 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.

That way we can all share our fascination for the history and heritage of the UK and pass on our knowledge and understanding to future generations, whilst protecting the remains in the ground, which are best left undisturbed.

So, 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 explains why you should think again.

Archaeology is about knowledge, not treasure

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.

Minimal intervention

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.

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.

The law and codes of conduct

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.

Ethical metal detecting

Metal detectorists, working either in close collaboration with archaeologists, or using their equipment to search for material which is at risk of loss in the plough soil, can make a positive contribution to archaeology – and many do. However, care is needed to ensure that ethical codes are followed and any finds are reported if we are to ensure that they add to our knowledge and understanding to the fullest extent. The recommended approach, supported by many national archaeological and detecting bodies, is set out in the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting.

If you have any doubt then it is always best to err on the side of caution. Archaeological finds, and their context, are often fragile and once destroyed they are lost forever and we can never regain the opportunity to recover the information that they might have contained.

If in doubt - ask us

If you want further advice about getting involved in archaeology, or want to discuss any aspect of the search for finds, or the use of metal detectors, then please do get in touch with the CBA and we will be happy to guide you.

As a result of watching the new TV series, you might be thinking of joining a local archaeological group, or a national body such as the Council for British Archaeology to find out more about the heritage of your area. If so, we can give you more information. Email us at info@britarch.ac.uk, or talk to us on 01904 671417.

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