RESCUE says: Proposed changes to ‘Treasure’ rules include some of our policy proposals

The long anticipated new review of the Treasure Act is out for consultation until the end of April 2019.  It covers various aspects of the procedure in the Treasure Act Code of Practice (last updated 2007) to improve delivery speeds. It removes the overlap between Church of England and Treasure laws (in favour of the CoE, not necessarily the best solution although maybe the simplest) in relation to burials in consecrated ground, an anomaly noted for resolution in discussions about the bill in 1996.

As before (in 2002) it suggests extensions to the original Treasure definition, this time to include:

  • Items with a potential market value of more than £10,000
  • Single gold coins dating between 43 and 1344
  • Roman hoards of base metal (the 2002 order extended the definition to prehistoric base metal hoards).

These suggestions continue and indeed reinforce the approach that has always lain at the heart of “Treasure” in English law, that items from the past worthy of preservation by addition to the public collections can be judged by monetary value. Thus it excludes single gold coins of Iron Age date because they are relatively common, whereas the proposed change would include early medieval gold coins that are rare and very expensive on the open market. The inclusion of individual objects worth more than £10,000 is highly questionable.

RESCUE believes that archaeological value and financial value must be kept separate in law, and that any antiquities legislation should be about recording and preserving items of archaeological or historical value. Every gold coin should of course be reported and recorded, they are indicators of exceptional status in the past. But other coins in their geographical context are also significant indicators, despite often being of no financial value at all.

One significant aspect of the value of archaeological finds is the amount of conservation that will be required to preserve an object in a public collection for posterity. It is absurd that there is no clear statement in the Act or the Code of Practice about this necessity, the cost of which should surely be deducted from any reward valuation.

The proposed revisions to the Code of Practice regarding Finder Rewards introduces the possibility of defining ‘archaeologist’ and ‘archaeological excavation or investigation’; the original Code states that “Rewards will not be payable when the find is made by an archaeologist or anyone engaged on an archaeological excavation or investigation. In cases of uncertainty archaeologists are recommended to require any individuals for whom they are responsible, or to whom they have given, or for whom they have sought, permission to search, to sign a statement waiving their right to a reward.”  The proposed definitions are:

  • Archaeologist: A professional, student, volunteer or amateur engaged on a planned study of the landscape where the primary goal is to understand past activity through an assessment of all traces of human activity.
  • Archaeological excavation or investigation: A planned study of the landscape that aims to record all traces of human activity thereon. It can be conducted by professional units, educational institutions or societies.

This seems to further muddy the waters by making anyone an archaeologist if they are engaged in an archaeological project. But our reading of this is that the payment is only not payable if the individual makes the find while engaged in an archaeological project, whereas the previous version could be interpreted as excluding archaeologists from rewards in any situation.  Surely this is about professionalism: a professional archaeologist should not profit from the sale of an object to a museum (which is essentially what the ‘reward’ is) in any circumstances whether during employment on a site or in their own time. A professional is someone qualified and employed (or retired from employment) as an archaeologist.  All professionally organised excavations and surveys should have clear stipulations about non-reward eligibility for all participants, including non-archaeologists.

A useful proposal is to activate part of the Coroners Act 2009 in order to make the non-reporting of potential Treasure an offence for a buyer – at present it is only the finder. In practical terms though, it may prove impossible to prosecute the buyers of un-reported ‘treasure’, in instances where, for example, the buyer and/or the finds are not in the UK.

The most interesting part of the consultation is headed ‘The long term future of the treasure process and its sustainability’. RESCUE is pleased to see that this includes suggestions for discussion similar to our own policies (see RESCUE policy document sections 10 and 11), that there should be a permit system for all archaeological work and that all archaeological objects found should be the property of the state – very different to the current emphasis on the outdated notion of ‘Treasure’.

Given the potentially controversial aspects of some of the consultation we would encourage ALL our members to consider putting in a response. We would also welcome any constructive comment on this piece, which is our first thoughts about our own response.

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