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Bill to close legal loophole on buried treasures

Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Wednesday December 18, 2002
The Guardian

West Country police recently turned out on a cold wet night, to follow up reports that two men were illegally digging on an important Roman site. A man with a metal detector was detained nearby, and hundreds of objects were recovered from his car and home.

But of the extraordinary haul of Roman coins, scraps of armour and harness, a medieval purse carrier and a crushed Victorian silver thimble, only a tiny scrap of blackened Anglo-Saxon silver can be proved to be held illegally. The finds, more than 400 in all, are being studied by experts at the British Museum, but the incident increases the frustration at the present law shared by archaeologists, police and museum experts.

Although amateurs using metal detectors are encouraged to report all finds, under the voluntary portable antiquities scheme, they are only legally obliged to report treasure finds of gold or silver or hoards of coins.

Of the cupboard full of finds from the West Country case, only the sliver of silver - a decorated Anglo Saxon strap end, perhaps 1,300 years old - counts as treasure, which the finder could be prosecuted for failing to report.

The man claimed to have been digging more than two miles from the Roman site, with the land owner's permission - though why he was doing so in darkness and rain was harder to explain.

Although many of the objects recovered are believed to have been illegally excavated, probably from scheduled ancient monuments like the Roman site, where permission would never be given for an amateur to trawl with a metal detector, it is impossible to prove where they came from. The coins would only be treasure if found as a hoard.

Although none of the objects are hugely valuable, there is a ready market for such scraps of history. Many antiquity dealers will not touch such unprovenanced items, but a dodgy dealer can accept, without written proof, assurances from an excavator that he had the land owner's consent, then swear he obtained the items in good faith and is protected in law. The damage is done, and the knowledge which could have been excavated with the objects lost forever.

Internationally the problem is vast, with a sophisticated trade in looted archaeology, sometimes stolen to order from sites or museum stores. In Britain the problem is also widespread, with reports from many parts of the country of "nighthawks", gangs of thieves removing van loads of material. Recently the Yeavering Bell Iron Age hillfort in Northumberland, which has never been excavated, was left pitted with dozens of holes

The government promised before the election to reform the law by creating a specific offence of acquiring, handling or selling looted antiquities, but has failed to find parliamentary time. An attempt to reform the law will be made through a private member's bill which will be introduced in February by Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam and a member of the parliamentary all-party archaeology group.

"This bill would mean that dealers who knowingly trade in artefacts plundered from archaeological sites could be prosecuted," he said. "Archaeological sites must be protected. Closing down the market in looted cultural objects would remove the incentive for taking material from archaeological sites."

At the British Museum Roger Bland, director of the portable antiquities scheme, which last year resulted in 40,000 reported finds, deals daily with the frustrations of the law as it stands: "In the West Country case the police behaved absolutely commendably, but it's hard to blame other overstretched forces with limited resources, when they know it will be hard or impossible to get a prosecution to stick. Reform of the law is long overdue."
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
18th December 2002ce
Edited 18th December 2002ce

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