World Coins

A cautionary tale for would-be UK treasure hunters

As locations go it is idyllic. The village of Parwich nestles in the Derbyshire Dales. Its pretty limestone cottages and houses, many with neat gardens, spread comfortably around the pond and lush village green. It is a rural haven, and despite its picture postcard appearance, until recent years it was one of Deryshire’s best kept secrets. That is until March 2015, when the Sunday Times named it as, “one of the best places to live in Britain.”

In March 2018, two treasure hunters decided it was also a good place for a spot of exploring. It will be clear later why I am not revealing their names. Armed with their metal detectors and with the permission of the landowner, they went to see what they could find. 

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They started exploring a wooded hill, and soon their detectors told them they were standing over buried metal. The area is dotted with Bronze Age round burial barrows, which are characteristic monuments of Britain’s prehistoric landscape. Mainly constructed from 2200 B.C. and 1100 B.C., of varying sizes, they look like an overturned bowl. They are usually surrounded by a ditch from which the earth and stone for the mound was dug. In addition to being burial places, they were also used by the living for rituals that cemented communities together.

There is a Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales. Treasure seekers should obey the law regarding protected sites such as archaeological ones, which should be obvious. Searching on a plowed field to the depth of the land that has been turned by the plow is generally not a problem. However, proceed carefully while excavating, say with a trowel, so as not to damage or miss anything. 

Searching in land that has not been disturbed, such as the earth below the plowed soil in an arable field, the soil below the turf in pasture, or earth in woodland is a different matter. Here there is the possibility of discovering stratified historic deposits, which are artefacts that have laid cheek by jowl since they were hidden in a previous era. It is essential that stratified objects receive the minimum of interference.

Proper practices, please

Of course, metal detectorists’ machines detect metal. While even digging with a heavy spade would not damage, say, a bronze axe-head, it would damage jewelry. As this is a numismatic publication, let us concentrate on coins. 

Heavy-handed excavation of a site could leave unpleasant marks on the surface of coins or shatter a pot in which a hoard was stored. If coins were stored in more than one vessel, it would be essential not to mix the two, so as to ascertain whether deposits were made at the same time or on different occasions. For coins stored in a bag or other material that would rot over time, it is essential to preserve what remains of it, as well as the clustering of the coins, to distinguish between planned concealment of a stash of cash and the votive offering of coins at random.

The code is crystal clear about discoveries made in undisturbed ground — “stop any digging!” Make the site look as near to possible as if it has not been examined, advise the landowner that expert advice is being sought, and contact the local finds liaison officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The Scheme was established to record archaeological finds in England and Wales. The finds liaison officer will be able to give advice on securing the site and advise on acquiring expert help for professionally excavating it. Contacting the Portable Antiquities Scheme will not change the finder’s rights of discovery (i.e. reward), but will result in far more archaeological evidence being recovered.

Doing it wrong

So, what happened at Parwich? After our two treasure seekers received a positive signal from their metal detectors, they next discovered that the metal was in the form of coins. They did contact Alastair Willis the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. They indicated the find area being in woodland at Parwich in the side of a Bronze Age barrow. The finds liaison officer asked them to stop digging immediately, as the discovery area was a protected site. However, it was too late.

Our treasure seekers detectors indicated that the metal was distributed over an 8-square-foot area (2.44 square metre site). The instructions to cease digging were too late, as, either carried away by enthusiasm or being unfamiliar with the code, they had set about excavating the whole site. They removed the soil to a depth of 2.5 feet (0.74 meter) at which level, they had encountered solid rock. I can see the blood drain from Alastair Willis’ face as I imagine him taking the call. This would be a finds liaison officer’s worst nightmare. 

Having moved the soil our treasure hunters found 261 coins. Several from the find are illustrated. 

In the local Derbyshire press the story of the find was accompanied by a photograph of a hoard of handsome Roman coins. Presumably this was a picture library shot, as Dr. Eleanor Ghey, curator of Iron Age and Roman Coin Hoards at the British Museum explained, “We did not get these coins cleaned prior to identification as they were stable and mostly legible for Treasure purposes. As resources are scarce, we avoid cleaning coins unless absolutely necessary for statutory reporting. This required us to advise on whether something meets the definition of Treasure and provide a listing for the purposes of valuation by independent experts. It is understood that finds may need further cleaning after acquisition to bring them up to display standard.”

Willis advised, ‘“They [the treasure hunters] followed the law by reporting the find. They did not follow parts of the Code of Practice, i.e. they were detecting in undisturbed woodland before seeking archaeological assistance.”

Luckily for the hunters, what they thought was a barrow was, in fact, not a scheduled archaeological site. The Treasure hunters were invited to assist the professional excavation of the site, when a few further coins were found. At the time of writing, these have not been added to the 261 coins the treasure hunters retrieved from the site. During a later telephone conversation Willis said, “They [the treasure hunters] will not be doing that again [failing to adhere to the Code].”

Most from fourth century

The majority (83 percent) of the 261 coins originally excavated are fourth century A.D. coins of the denomination known today as the nummus. Most were struck in the 330s and 340s. There was one plated copper counterfeit denarius of Septimus Severus relating to 194 A.D.; two denominations known today as radiates of Gallienus (260 to 268); two unidentified third century radiates; and 39 unidentified coins, including one in lead (which may be a token). The latter may be an imitation of a late fourth century coin, or a later medieval piece. The coins are mostly worn and friable, suggesting that they were not buried within a container. All the coins are base metal.

The coins were declared treasure at Chesterfield Coroner’s Court on Jan. 21, 2019. How can they be “treasure” if base metal? Quite simply, the Treasure Act 1996 defines coins containing less than 10 percent of precious metal as treasure providing they are at least 300 years old and providing there are at least 10 of them. Kathryn Hayes, the assistant coroner for Derbyshire, said that it was not clear if the coins, which could have been a votive or ritualistic offering given the nature of where they were found, formed a single deposit or were placed at the site over a number of decades. The find site will be investigated by the Peak District National Park Authority.

Ian Richardson, the treasure registrar at the Portable Antiquities Scheme, advises that Buxton Museum hopes to acquire the hoard in due course. The coroner will return the hoard to the British Museum (where the PAS is located) and it will be assessed by the Treasure Valuation Committee of independent expertise. Its valuation is what Buxton Museum will have to pay. The sum is paid to the finders and the owner of the land, on the terms agreed when permission to search the land was granted. This is usually on a 50:50 basis. 

History repeats itself

A brief 19th century account of a find in the same area exists. However, it gives little detail but refers to a scattered deposit of third or fourth century A.D. base metal coins. Up until 1996, the ancient law of Treasure Trove would have applied to the hoard, and it would not have been declared treasure as the coins were not of precious metal. The coins had been disturbed by the robbing of the barrow for stone, and it was not clear if the coins were a single deposit or had been placed there over time.

Over the past 20 years, 13,000 finds have gone through the treasure process. Over 30 percent of the objects found are now in museums to be enjoyed by millions of members of the public. This is an amazing achievement. 

However, some antiquities are escaping the net because of the definition of treasure. For example, in 2010 a detectorist found a magnificent Roman helmet near Crosby Garrett in Cumbria. It was not caught by the definition of treasure, as it was a single find and made of copper. It was subsequently bought by a private collector for £2.3 million. Government ministers want such rarities to be treasure so that they can be acquired by a UK museum. The act will be changed so that it catches anything worth £10,000 or more.

In 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 1,267 archaeological finds in the UK. Many of these were made by amateur hobbyists with metal detectors. It is believed that some finds are being sold online without being declared to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is likely that powers will be made available to challenge both sellers and buyers of such material. 

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