The Portable Antiquities Scheme

on Wednesday, 27 November 2019. Posted in Archaeology

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a national programme run by the British Museum in partnership with local bodies; in Wiltshire these are Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire Museum, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. The primary aims of the scheme are to provide a framework by which members of the public can identify and record finds of potential archaeological significance, as well as to encourage awareness of archaeological issues and best archaeological practice. Whilst the scheme is available to everyone, from field walkers to builders, by the nature of their hobby Metal Detectorists find the majority of the archaeological artefacts we record onto our database; and it is our job to help those engaged in the hobby record as much archaeological information as they can, while also minimising disturbance of in situ archaeological remains.

Metal detecting as a hobby is actually highly comparable to fishing and, anecdotally, I have noticed there does seem to be a great deal of overlap between the two groups. Both hobbies are relatively solitary affairs which can require great deals of patience – they both also exploit a resource in our environment, but this is where the similarities begin to end. Whereas fishing is carefully licenced and managed in order to ensure that the exploitation of our river’s fish is sustainable, there is no such monitoring of the archaeological record.

Crucially, and unlike fish, the archaeological record cannot repopulate itself, once a deposit is disturbed and/or artefact removed, the context is lost for good. This is why it is imperative that detectorists behave responsibly as they exploit this resource which, ultimately, belongs to everyone.

Legally speaking, detectorists in England and Wales are only required to report objects which meet the criteria of the Treasure Act 1996, this is a very specifically worded and narrow set of criteria which frequently miss nationally important finds; a recent example has obviously been the Gloucestershire Dog hoard, but more locally this narrow definition has missed a large hoard of Roman pewter, containing a rare and well preserved tank, thankfully reported by the finder. There is more to detecting responsibly than simply making me aware of unusual finds however, and the perception that I would only be interested in nicer finds is something I often run up against.

Hoard: A Hoard of Roman Pewter vessels found by a metal detectorist in North West Wiltshire, unfortunately archaeological assistance was not sought in advance of recovering the hoard. Salisbury Museum/PAS

Detecting responsibly involves recording every find with the FLO with an accurate find spot and potentially even a record of the depth at which it was found. It also involves detecting only on land which is being actively disturbed by cultivation. As an FLO part of my role is to help characterise the landscape through these finds and identify sites which are being damaged by cultivation. It is for this reason that the spatial information of where a find was discovered is frequently of as much, if not more importance than the object itself. With the increasing availability of GPS apps, it is now incredibly easy to keep accurate records. We ask that these records are kept on disturbed land because this information can often provide an insight into the original context of the find. The archaeology on an uncultivated site is under no immediate risk of being damaged, so, from an archaeological perspective, there can be no argument for detecting on these sites.

Map: Overlaying GPS data over geophysical survey results can provide important information. Here the relationship between a disturbed hoard and irregular ditch feature is suggested. Geophysical survey and map created by Mike McQueen, base map copyright ordnance survey.

Responsible detecting applies to detecting in groups as well as an individual. Metal detecting rallies are becoming increasingly popular but can be very damaging to archaeology if there is a high concentration of detecting on a particularly archaeologically sensitive site. Responsible detecting for rallies includes the organiser not only getting permission of landowners but also from the local authority archaeological curators (Wiltshire Council Archaeology Service) so the Historic Environment Record (HER) can be consulted to help steer rallies away from very sensitive sites. Of course any finds made at rallies would also need to be recorded with the PAS.

Finally, responsible detecting involves stopping when you think you have found in situ archaeology. If this does happen, people are encouraged to contact either myself or the Wiltshire Council’s Archaeology department so that a proper excavation can be arranged. In a proper excavation, objects will be less likely to be damaged, the archaeological context in which they were deposited can be assessed and details even such as pollen or grains trapped within vessels can be recovered, allowing us to speculate even down to the season in which an object was deposited.

Plant remains: Plant remains found preserved within the Pewsey Roman vessel hoard, they show that the hoard had been packed with local grass and deposited in late summer. Salisbury Museum/PAS, see WILT-0F898C.

Code for Responsible Detecting 

For more information, please refer to the Portable Antiquities Scheme website 

Wil Partridge
Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire
01722 332151
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