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Treasure find proves British laws work

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By Richard Giedroyc

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter (England) is launching an appeal to raise funds to purchase the 22,000 ancient Roman coins found with a metal detector near Seaton during 2013, according to a British Broadcasting Corporation news release.

A close-up of some of the roman coins as they were found. (Image courtesy of the British Museum / APEX)

A close-up of some of the roman coins as they were found. (Image courtesy of the British Museum / APEX)

The hoard discovered by Laurence Egerton in East Devon is the largest such hoard ever found in England. Egerton was detecting near the ruins of a Roman villa at Honeyditches that had been previously excavated. The hoard was declared treasure at an inquest in Devon in September.

Experts concluded the hoard was likely someone’s savings and valued it at about two years wages for a contemporary Roman soldier.

The coins date between A.D. 260 and A.D. 348, according to county archaeologist Bill Homer. The coins had been stored in a sack that had deteriorated with time. Homer said of the hoard, “The majority of the coins are so well preserved that they were able to be dated very accurately. This is very unusual for Devon because the county, as a whole, has slightly acidic soil which leads to metals corroding.”

The contents of the hoard aren’t that extraordinary. Many of them are nummi struck at Lyon in Gaul (modern France), depicting Constantinopolis on the obverse with Victory on a ship’s prow on the reverse.

What is important is that the disposition of the hoard illustrates the success of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a voluntary project managed by the British Museum through which archaeological objects found by the public are properly recorded. By studying the context in which the Seaton find was discovered it was able to be concluded that the find was likely someone’s personal savings.

According to the BBC news release, “Realizing the significance of the discovery, and that much of it was in situ, the finder immediately contacted the landowner (Clinton Devon Estates), as well as Danielle Wootton (Devon Finds Liaison Officer, based at the University of Exeter) and Bill Horner (County Archaeologist). This prompt and responsible action ensured the coins were properly excavated and allowed for the later recording of the hoard and its context at the British Museum.”

British treasure trove laws allow the finder to keep the find in some situations, while in others the finder may be rewarded when the find is purchased at fair market value by a museum. This is why the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is asking the public to donate to their slush fund through which the museum hopes to purchase the coins. The museum plans to exhibit many of them.

According to a March 6, 2013, National Geographic News article, “The relationship between archaeologists and metal detector hunters is, for the most part, downright amiable. Each year, the British Museum reaches out to some 177 metal-detecting clubs and judges the year’s ‘best’ find.”

Unfortunately this special relationship between archaeologists and metal detector enthusiasts is not shared worldwide. Ship owners, insurance companies, and governments all arrive with their hands out to claim treasure recovered from shipwrecks. What has been salvaged only goes exclusively to the treasure hunter when the owner of the wreck can’t be identified.

The Standard Catalog of World Coins 1601-1700 is the most complete volume on coins of the 17th century available on the market today.

The Standard Catalog of World Coins 1601-1700 is the most complete volume on coins of the 17th century available on the market today.

In the United States individual state rather than federal laws apply to finds discovered on property within their jurisdiction. In some states whatever you find on your own property is yours to keep unless the place was formerly a burial site. Objects discovered on federal lands are protected by draconian laws that can result in the finder being charged with a felony.

An Oct. 7 Reuters announced India is finally considering repealing the Treasure Trove Act of 1878. The act states that any unearthed treasure valued at 10 rupees (16 U.S. cents) or greater belongs to the British monarch. The 2002 issue of the International Numismatic Commission’s publication includes 50 pages of treasure trove law summaries for countries including Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Israel, Scotland, and Spain.

In places such as Greece, Italy, and Turkey the laws are simple—anything found belongs to the government, with the finder getting nothing in return. We can all learn a lesson from how the laws in the United Kingdom work.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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