Detectorists urged to be aware of laws surrounding historic artefacts

Mick Ferris

The advent of autumn sees farmers ploughing their fields ready for new crops to be planted and drilled, which makes them attractive to metal detectorists.

Essex Police’s Rural, Wildlife and Heritage Crime officer PC Jed Raven is keen for people eager to get out into the countryside and search for treasure and buried archaeological objects to be aware of the law and the requirement to report finds.

“Metal detecting is more popular in the autumn because fields have been harvested, ploughed and drilled and this activity could turn up new finds. A ploughed field is a brand new dig,” says Jed.

“Most metal detectorists are responsible people. They have asked the landowner for permission to go on to their land and dig. They know that they are required by law to report finds defined in the 1996 Treasure Act and comply with the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting – https://finds.org.uk/getinvolved/guides/codeofpractice

“But some are unaware of the laws surrounding metal detecting while others wilfully ignore it.

“If historic artefacts and treasure are not reported then it means they are stolen.

“They may end up in the hands of private collectors here or exported abroad, possibly reappearing on the international art market in several years’ time.

“Whatever happens, it means the information they could provide about our nation’s history is lost forever.”

Jed says the first rule of metal detecting is to ask permission from the landowner and to report any subsequent finds.

“We are trying to ensure farmers, landowners and local communities are aware of the history in their midst and the legislation which protects it.

“Essex contains a variety of scheduled ancient monuments which cannot be detected on. People also have a duty to familiarise themselves with what is treasure and the fact that they must report it to the finds liaison officer at Colchester City Council, who will offer advice on the next steps.

“We don’t want to discourage people from looking for history but we want them to do it legally so we can protect our heritage,” Jed explains.

Jed and colleagues in the force’s Rural Engagement and Community Policing teams work with farmers, partners and the wider community to understand what everyone can do to protect the historic environment, from Historic England, English Heritage, National Trust and local landowners to the National Crime Agency and Border Force.

Essex was the first force in England to obtain a successful conviction under the 1996 Treasure Act. Thanks to the work of its rural engagement officers, a couple who failed to declare finding an Iron Age hoard of 933 gold Stater coins in Great Baddow both admitted a charge of finding an object believed to be treasure and failing to notify the coroner.

The pair had kept back 23 coins from the 2,000-year-old hoard after notifying the landowner, who notified the correct authorities himself.

In April 2021, Chelmsford magistrates sentenced one of them to an 18-month community order with 200 hours of unpaid work and fined him £200. His partner was fined £299. The metal detector involved was ordered to be forfeited and destroyed.

At the subsequent inquest, the ‘Baddow Hoard’ was declared treasure and is now awaiting official valuation.

All Essex Police’s rural engagement officers and several other officers across the force are qualified to investigate rural heritage crime, after completing a heritage and cultural property crime course run in conjunction with Historic England.

Head of Heritage Crime Strategy for Historic England, Mark Harrison, says: “The Essex officers who came on our course were most passionate and enthusiastic about protecting our heritage. They are now equipped with the knowledge and understanding required to prevent and investigate crime and anti-social behaviour in the historic environment.”

Essex Police Superintendent Jon Burgess is staff officer to the National Police Chiefs’ Council Heritage Crime and Cultural Property Crime portfolio holder, Essex Police Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Nolan.

He says: “Our heritage is literally all around us. Every field in the UK has trace of Roman, Saxon or other periods of history. We’re a proud nation and we love our history, so it’s crucial we look after it.

“Heritage sites are quite often in rural areas and the training enabled our rural officers to understand what’s on their patch, its vulnerability and its value and how to protect it.

“They better understand the issues, legislation and how they can apply it if, for example, they see or are alerted to illicit metal detectorists taking heritage that could be lost forever.

“The vast majority of detectorists are law-abiding individuals who get the necessary permission and some of the most significant hoards in this country wouldn’t have been discovered if it wasn’t for detectorists.

“Some finds rewrite the history books, where we didn’t know certain clans or groups were talking or trading, so it’s crucial those are documented through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and reported under the Treasure Act.”

Of course, adds Jed, it’s not just people ‘hunting for treasure’ who can destroy our heritage. Anti-social behaviour can also cause damage.

“It may be a social gathering in the summer where people light barbecues, without thinking, on what could be a prehistoric burial ground or a scheduled monument,” he says.

“There may be signs there but people are often oblivious to them and can end up causing irreparable damage.

“We’re reaching out to the public and our partners to help spot this type of behaviour, too. The police can’t do this alone. We need the help of our communities and I know there’s a real energy of people out there, such as the Essex Horse Rider Volunteers, wanting to help out – not to tackle offenders but simply to report what they see that isn’t quite right.” https://www.essex.police.uk/police-forces/essex-police/areas/essex-police/au/about-us/essex-watch/essex-horse-rider-volunteer-scheme

Reporting finds

Finders should report any finds defined as Treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act to their local finds liaison officer (FLO) who will report the find to the coroner on their behalf.

The FLO will produce a specialist report for the coroner to be considered at an inquest, if a museum wishes to acquire it, to decide whether the find is treasure.

If it is declared treasure, a value will be agreed upon at a Treasure Valuation Committee meeting, administered by the Treasure Registrars at the British Museum. Finders and landowners may be entitled to a monetary reward if the find is acquired, but some decide to waive their share, allowing museums to acquire finds as donations.

The FLO also records archaeological objects found by members of the public on an online database under the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The records for these finds can be accessed by the public who are interested in what has been found near them as well as by researchers who use the data to help answer important questions about particular aspects of regional or national history.

The Essex finds liaison officer is Lori Rogerson who can be contacted at lori.rogerson@colchester.gov.uk or by ringing 01206 282390.

Heritage Watch

Heritage Watch aims to protect our county’s many historical sites, monuments and artefacts from heritage crime. This also includes museums, art galleries and other heritage attractions.

Essex Police wants people to join Heritage Watch and become the force’s eyes and ears around these precious sites and artefacts and to report any criminal or suspicious activity taking place. https://www.essex.police.uk/police-forces/essex-police/areas/essex-police/au/about-us/essex-watch/heritage-watch

For more information, or to register your interest, contact the Essex Watch liaison officers. https://www.essex.police.uk/police-forces/essex-police/areas/essex-police/au/about-us/essex-watch/contact-us

You can check the location of scheduled ancient monuments by visiting Historic England’s National Heritage List for England. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/map-search

Mick Ferris

Editor Email: mickferris@yellowad.co.uk