A new report by Crown officials raises concerns over “serious under-reporting” by the lucky few who stumble across buried artefacts.
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Professor Ian Ralston, chairman of the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel, said: “If you look at the amount of stuff found in Northumberland and Cumbria compared to the south of Scotland, there has to be a suspicion that there is a significant number of undeclared finds.”
The problem is brought to light in the Scottish Treasure Trove annual report, published yesterday by the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer.
In Scotland, any finds classed as treasure, including items such as axe heads and stone carvings as well as gold and jewels, must be declared to the Crown, which will pass them on to museums or other suitable collections for public display and study.
The finder is entitled to a courtesy payment, with sums ranging from £10 to £2000 handed out for individual discoveries within the past year.
In England, however, the portable antiquities scheme – introduced in 1996 – allows treasure hunters to keep all but the most valuable finds. English law counts only gold, silver, large groups of coins and certain ancient artefacts as treasure, whereas in Scotland “virtually anything” can count, according to the Crown Office.
Mr Ralston said the English model had led to “spectacular increases” in finds being declared, while people in Scotland may keep theirs to themselves for fear of losing them.
However, with treasures remaining in the hands of finders, the scheme south of the Border is seen by some critics as selfish.
Whereas Scottish artefacts are displayed in the public interest, those in England often end up in private collections or sitting on mantelpieces.
Nonetheless, there remains little incentive for English archaeologists and hobbyists to hide their finds from authorities, whereas Scots will have theirs seized if they declare them.
In the Treasure Trove report, Mr Ralston highlights long-term problems with undeclared finds in Scotland.
“The Panel remains concerned, as it has been for a number of years, that there seems to be serious under-reporting of archaeological finds from Scotland,” he said.
Both Mr Ralston and Catherine Dyer, Scotland’s new Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer, paid tribute to those who do declare their finds for the good of the country.
Many discoveries are made by archeologists working on surveys for universities or other groups, but a large number are uncovered by amateur metal detectorists or members of the public who come across them by chance.
There are around 100 members of Scotland’s two metal detecting clubs, according to Alastair Hacket, secretary of the Edinburgh-based Scottish Detector Club, with at least 100 more who pursue the hobby independently. Numbers have risen in recent years thanks to high profile successes like that of David Booth, the novice from Stirling who found £1 million-worth of gold in 2009 on his first outing with his new metal detector. The safari park worker received a £462,000 reward.
Most discoveries in Scotland involve small artefacts like coins, but the Treasure Trove report warns that expertise in this area is now lacking due to the retirement of the country’s leading numismatist. The National Museums of Scotland has not replaced its coin expert, the report said, meaning that officials face the prospect of bringing a coin-dealer up from London to handle Scots finds.
Mr Hacket said this left “a fairly serious gap” in national capabilities.
Other items uncovered during the last year included a neolithic stone axehead near Perth, dating from 4000-2200 BC, and Anglo-Scandinavian sword pommel near Abington in South Lanarkshire. The pommel dates from the 9th to 10th centuries, and is noteworthy because it was found outside the cultural area thought to have created it.