Portable Antiquities Scheme

Kurt Adams

Finds Liason Officer for Gloucester County Council, & Bristol Museum &Art Gallery.

8 September 2005

Every year members of the public discover many thousands of archaeological objects, whether this is whilst metal detecting, out walking, or digging in their gardens. These finds have the potential to tell us a great deal about our past and how people used to live. Therefore in 1997 the Portable Antiquities Schemes was founded with the overall aim to advance the knowledge of the history of England and Wales by systematically recording archaeological objects found by the public.

A study in 1995 for the Council for British Archaeology estimated that up to 400,000 archaeological artefacts were being discovered each year by metal-detector users.

This meant that a huge amount of archaeological information was being lost each year and although many museums were attempting to record as much information as possible, they were unable to stem the tide of lost information.

As a result, the pilot Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was set up in 1997 to encourage and develop voluntary recording of archaeological artefacts made by members of the public. The scheme was not only aimed at metal detector users but also at people digging in their back garden, whilst out field walking and amateur archaeological groups.

I have even recorded finds from builders working on sites e.g. the Axe heads in the image below.


Originally the pilot scheme had six people called Finds Liaison Officers (FLO) recording artefacts. These FLOs were set up in key counties where substantial numbers of finds were turning up, such as Lincolnshire and Kent. This was then expanded in 1999 when the Heritage Lottery Fund gave funding to employ a further five Finds Liaison Officers and an outreach officer. Nevertheless, this still meant that about two thirds of the country did not have a dedicated Finds Liaison Officers in position.

It was not until 2003 with the further help from the Heritage Lottery Fund that the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was able to expand and have a full coverage of the England and Wales with 36 Finds Liaison Officers covering the whole of the country, with some of the FLOs covering more than one county, such as the Gloucestershire and Avon post. If we add administrative and technical staff, it means that a total of 46 full time members of staff are now employed by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The aims of the Portable Antiquities Scheme are:

To advance knowledge of the history and archaeology of England and Wales by systematically recording archaeological objects found by members of the public.
To raise awareness among the public of the educational value of archaeological finds in their contact and facilitate research in them.
To conduct careful study in context, for example the buried ship at Sutton Hoo. The information on the ship and its importance in the landscape were determined from its context.
To share information with the academic world, for example, many FLOs give lectures to universities. These lectures involve educating the students about the educational and research value of recorded archaeological finds, a subject hitherto ignored by undergraduate studies.
To raise awareness in schools. The scheme is introduced to students at key stage 2 with talks to schools on Roman artefacts.
To increase opportunities for public involvement in archaeology and strengthen links between metal detector users and archaeologists. Many of the FLOs have been able to organise large detailed surveys of areas using metal detector users.
To encourage all those who find archaeological artefacts to make them available for recording and promote best practice by finders. This is advertised to the public at events and rallies.
So what does this mean for the FLO?

The Finds Liaison Officer has become the first point of contact for many people concerning any aspect of the treasure law, particularly metal detector users.

Therefore, the FLO has also taken on the responsibilities of treasure co-ordination for their area. This means picking up the treasure from the finder or local museum, filling in the treasure receipt forms, contacting the coroner and the British Museum and organising the depositing of artefacts at the British Museum. This goes hand-in-hand with advising people on any aspect of the Treasure Law.

Regional Scheme

The post of Finds Liaison in this area is split between Gloucester County Council and Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

There are 5 metal detecting clubs in the area but many finds are made by people from outside Gloucestershire and Somerset area, for instance the finds co-ordinator for Wales records a large amount or finds made in Gloucestershire and the FLO for Wiltshire records a large amount of finds from the Cotswolds. There are also historical societies within the Forest of Dean that have contact with metal detector users.

How does the scheme work day to day?

Many people that field walk or enjoy detecting tend to be occupied with work in weekday hours, this means that the only time we get to see many of them are at club meetings which usually take place in pubs. On these occasions we tend to have competitions to judge find of the month, enjoy small talk and offer advice.

It is interesting to note that many archaeological societies are either folding due to lack of attendance or because no fieldwork is occurring or the society is becoming aged. On the contrary, metal detecting societies are over-subscribed, the average age is getting younger, families join, there are frequent field activities in the form of club rallies to sustain the interest of members.

Recording of Finds

From April 2003, the Portable Antiquities Scheme has been using an online database. This means that an artefact can be seen on the database by any party wishing to view the relevant record.

One of the advantages of this form of access is that it makes it more available for research as all the information is in one location. Furthermore, the database can be checked by finds specialists.

It is interesting to make note of the finds inputted by other FLO’s as they might well be getting finds from another FLO’s region.

However, the recording of findspots on the internet is where we could potentially have problems. Some people will only give four figure grid references (location to within 1km). These references are next to useless as they are not a close enough locator to be specific but this does protect sites from damage caused by thieves using metal detectors (Nighthawks). Nevertheless, only six figure grid references (100m) are useful to archaeology.

In 1984 treasure was found on a Roman temple site at Wanborough in Norfolk. Unfortunately, the location of the findspot was read out in court and as a result, ‘Nighthawks’ swooped onto the location.

This photograph shows the most damaged part of the site, after excavation, of all the material disturbed by illicit metal detecting. Part of the hedgerow was killed by treasure hunters undermining it from both sides, therefore environmental damage was caused as well. Perhaps the greatest potential loss the information associated with locating finds in their context and what they could have told us about the temple. As a result only limited findspot locations are given on the internet.


60% of the artefacts recorded last year were from metal detector users. They can be most beneficial as the vast majority of detector users work on ploughed soil so context is not quite so relevant. This is owing to the very harsh burial environment with eroding chemical action exacerbated by the action of water & oxygen. An artefact will only have a life of about 10 years in ploughed soil.

Archaeologists are somewhat hampered by not being able to search everywhere. Metal detector users and field-walkers have the advantage of being able to search in areas that are effectively closed to archaeologists such as private farm land and by their lack of funding for such small project initiatives. The non-specialists can therefore have the opportunity to build up a more detailed picture.

How Useful is this Information?

The PAS Website is undoubtedly of use to schools, to academics and to finds specialists. The work of the scheme itself is useful for determining planning decisions and indeed influencing such permissions.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme doesn’t only work with metal detector users but also with people that find fragments of pot whilst digging in their back garden.

From amongst field-walkers, the scheme in Somerset and Dorset recorded 246 metal detected finds and almost 1000 finds by field-walkers. These relative statistics are similar in the West Midlands, Northamptonshire and Hampshire.

What does seem apparent is that the majority of artefacts recorded for this area may be finds made by metal detector users.

The Treasure Act

Originally, artefacts of treasure were covered under the old law of Treasure Trove which dated back to the Medieval Period. Under the old system it had to be proven that the artefact was:

made substantially of gold or silver,
deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery
of unknown ownership; the owner and heirs had to be unknown.
This law was ineffective and impossible to prove, in effect the jury were being asked o read dead minds. Hence, in 1997 the old law concerning treasure (treasure trove) was replaced by the 1996 Treasure Act, which was expanded again in 2003, stating that an artefact would be classed as treasure if:

Any artefact had more than 10% cent gold or silver and was at least 300 years old. If the object is of prehistoric date it will be Treasure provided any part of it is precious metal.(e.g. this Anglo Saxon artefact)

b. Any group of two or more metallic objects of prehistoric date that come from the same findspot (e.g. these Middle Bronze Age Plastave axes)

c. Two or more gold or silver coins over 300 years old when found and from the same findspot.

d. Ten or more copper alloy coins that are over 300 years old when found, that are from the same findspot (e.g. this Thornbury coin hoard)

e. Any type of object, whatever it was made of, if it was found in the same place as a treasure artefact will be classed as treasure, for example a pot containing a hoard of coins.

f. Any object that would previously have been treasure trove but does not fall within the specific categories given above. Only objects that are less than 300 years old, that are made substantially of gold and silver and have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown will come into this category.

The Treasure act is a law and therefore finders have to report treasure artefacts where they find out it is covered by the Treasure act.

Of Treasure collected, 86.9% was located by metal detection and 5.1% was found during archaeological excavation. About 25 artefacts a year were declared treasure trove under the old act as compared to many more items declared Treasure under the new act. Within the past year there were 373 cases from which 188 were acquired by a museum, 153 were disclaimed or not found to be treasure, the rest are on- going.

Where a Portable Antiquities Scheme exists in a locality, the recording is on average higher than elsewhere. However, of the 20,000 detector users in the country, between them they located only 400 treasure cases last year, almost half of which were found not to be treasure. Therefore, most metal detector users never find Treasure. Hence their often-quoted remark, ‘you won’t even pay for your batteries’.

In Conclusion: Points to Remember

A field-walker or metal detector user must ask permission to search on all land whether it is a farm field, a public footpath, a beach, common land. All land is owned by someone.
If permission has not been sought and received to be on someone’s land then that is interpreted as trespassing and removing any artefacts is theft.
Always record where these artefacts are found, this is the most important piece of information.
Get it recorded, it is useless otherwise and a loss to yours and my heritage.
If in doubt ask someone. This includes Treasure.
At the conclusion of his talk, the speaker invited participatory discussion by displaying a wide range of slides showing artefacts from Ancient Britain. He took several questions from the audience which were ably answered with flair and detailed consideration.

Lee Hooker