On Friday 2nd December 2020 it is likely that many archaeologists, curators and metal detectorists woke up pleased at the announcement from the Government that the definition of treasure for the Treasure Act 1996 will be revised. However, it is also equally probable that the same number were perplexed and worried as to how this change, amongst others, would be implemented. The Government announced back in February 2019 that it was holding an open consultation to consider various changes to the Act. The IAL covered the announcement and also provided an overview of its response to the consultation here.
The biggest change proposed by the Government last week is that the definition of treasure will now no longer be limited to objects containing gold or silver but will be assessed on their archaeological and historical significance. This will be a huge change that means a much larger number of objects found by metal detectorists could end up in public collections, such objects that previously would have been returned to the finder and then sold privately, such as the Leasingham Horse found in Lincolnshire (image below right) and a hooded Roman figurine found in Essex (image above left). These objects are made of base metals such as bronze, but from a research perspective they are equally important in understanding the material cultural of the past.
This is a very welcome change as it will bring the definition of treasure in line with other legislation concerning the protection of cultural heritage which focuses on the significance of the archaeological site (Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979) or the building concerned (Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990). It also makes the legislation protecting archaeological finds similar to that of other countries where all archaeological finds belong to the State.
While it is great news that more objects will now have to be declared, this means that museums will be under greater pressure to raise the funds to purchase these objects once they have been valued. Smaller local and county museums are already under huge financial pressure, struggling to stay open and store the objects they already have, so may not be in a position to purchase all the “new” treasure.
The greater number of treasure finds will require a new and upgraded administration. The consultation considered methods of speeding up various stages of the treasure process. If the number of possible finds that could be classed as treasure will be greater and the time scales more precise and shorter, then the current infrastructure will likely need an overhaul and more funding.
The announcement states that the update to the Treasure Act 1996 will cover other changes such as the exclusion of finds that fall under the Church of England’s jurisdiction as well as considering a static date to avoid mass produced finds from the Industrial Revolution. How all these changes materialise (and their details) are currently unknown. They state that archaeologists, museum specialists and curators, metal detectorists and other specialists will be consulted throughout the process. We will be waiting with baited breath.