Metal-detecting, Field-walking and Searching for Archaeological Objects: guidance for landowners, occupiers and tenant farmers in England and Wales
- Many people go to the countryside to search for archaeological objects. They mostly search on cultivated and arable land.
- The majority of people looking for archaeological objects are hobby metal-detector users. Some are likely to be members of the National Council for Metal Detecting (www.ncmd.co.uk) and/or the Federation of Independent Detectorists (www.fid.org.uk). Both organisations have a Code of Conduct by which their members are required to operate as a condition of membership and provide members with public liability insurance. Landowner/farmer occupiers also have a duty of care under the Occupiers’ Liability Acts 1957 and 1984.
- Field-walkers and/or other amateur or professional archaeologists also may seek permission to search. In most cases they will recover finds from the soil surface, such as worked flint or pottery, but (with the landowner/farmer occupier’s permission) may also wish to excavate. Such individuals may be affiliated to a local museum, archaeological society, university or be professional archaeological contractors. Many archaeologists will be members of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (www.archaeologists.net) and follow its Code of Conduct.
- The Code of Practice on Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales (revised 2017) – see https://finds.org.uk/getinvolved/guides/codeofpractice – has been endorsed by all key archaeological bodies and landowner/farmer organisations, providing a clear definition of what constitutes good practice, though it is not followed by all metal-detectorists.
Benefits of Metal-detecting
- If undertaken responsibly, with all discovered finds identified, reported and recorded (see below), then metal-detecting, field-walking and other archaeological fieldwork, can provide valuable information about the archaeology and history of the countryside. Most archaeologists recognise the benefits of responsible metal-detecting, particularly for retrieving and recording finds vulnerable to agricultural damage and corrosion, and for adding to our knowledge of the past.
- The presence of people on land with permission may also discourage trespassing, fly-tipping, vandalism, hare coursing and other illicit or unwanted activity by others.
- Anyone wishing to search for archaeological objects on someone else’s land must have sought the landowner’s permission first. This should come from the landowner directly, but where the tenant is approached he/she will need to seek authority from the landowner. Likewise, a landowner will need to gain consent from the tenant before giving permission. Consent should be recorded in a finds agreement between the landowner, occupier (where there is one) and the person seeking permission.
- All finds (apart from Treasure) normally belong to the landowner (see below). It is recommended that landowners/farmer occupiers have a written ‘finds agreement’ (available from the CLA or NFU) with anyone wishing to search, outlining the nature of the permission, the area to be searched and what happens to any objects found.
- It is illegal to use a metal-detector on Scheduled Monuments, without permission from Historic England (England) or Cadw (Wales).
- It is a criminal offence to undertake works (such as field-walking or excavation) affecting a Scheduled Monument without written consent from the Secretary of State. Applications for Scheduled Monument consent, and applications to vary existing consents, should be sent to Historic England or Cadw.
- Metal-detecting is not permitted on some Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) without the permission of Natural England.
- Metal-detecting is also restricted on some land under agri-environment schemes; there are different rules for different schemes (in addition to the restrictions on Scheduled Monuments and SSSIs).
- If human remains are uncovered the police must be notified; it is an offence to excavate these without a licence from the Ministry of Justice for the removal of buried remains
- Metal-detecting is not allowed on any ‘known archaeological sites’ on Agreement Land without permission from Natural England and penalties may be triggered for non-compliance; such sites are identified on the Historic Environment Farm Environment Record (HEFER) held by the Agreement Holder.
- On any other Agreement Land, metal-detecting is allowed (including rallies – see below) as long as it does not conflict with the requirements of the Agreement; for example, disturbing ground-nesting birds.
- All hobby metal-detecting allowed by Agreement Holders must be undertaken in accordance with the current Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting, and all finds must be reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme as set out in that Code.
Higher Level Environmental Stewardship
- Metal-detecting is not permitted on ‘known archaeological sites’ without the permission of Natural England and penalties may be triggered for non-compliance: such sites will be identified in the landowner/farmer occupier’s Farm Environment Plan.
Entry Level Environmental Stewardship
- Metal-detecting is not allowed on ‘known archaeological sites’ under grassland without the permission of Natural England and penalties may be triggered for non-compliance: such sites will be identified in the landowners/farmer occupier’s Farm Environment Record. Otherwise there are no restrictions on metal-detecting providing searchers follow the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting, and that they follow the rules on rallies below.
Further information can be found here: https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/caring-for-heritage/rural-heritage/metal-detecting-agri-environment-land/
- Most archaeologists think metal-detecting rallies (events involving groups of many people searching on an area of land) can be damaging to archaeology. Often random, searching takes place over a large area of land, and it is almost impossible for archaeologists (when invited) to make a proper record of all objects found. To reduce damage and ensure better preservation of the archaeological record it is recommended that, if a metal-detecting rally occurs, organisers should follow the Guidance on Metal-Detecting Rallies in England and Wales (see www.finds.org.uk/rallycode).
- Finds Liaison Officers will not attend metal-detecting rallies to record finds in the field, but may come (if invited) to promote responsible metal-detecting, borrow finds for recording, or encourage finders (from further afield) to record these with their local Finds Liaison Officer nearer to where they live.
- Natural England requires up to 12 weeks’ notice of any large-scale metal-detecting events on environmental stewardship land and may refuse permission if they consider the event will damage environmental features.
Illegal Searching (also known as nighthawking)
- Anyone searching on land without permission is committing trespass.
- Anyone removing objects from land without the landowner/farmer occupier’s permission is committing theft.
- Anyone metal-detecting and removing objects from a Scheduled Monument will be committing an offence under the Archaeological Areas and Ancient Monuments Act 1979. There may also be acts of criminal damage associated with these activities.
- If a landowner/farmer occupier discovers illegal searching activities then he/she should call the police, and also make it clear to any attending officer/s that action should to be taken against the offender/s. Make a note of the name and shoulder number of any attending officer/s, and insist on a crime reference number for your own records. The CLA and NFU can offer guidance to their members on legal options, including potential civil action in cases of trespass.
Ownership of Archaeological Objects
- By law, archaeological objects (apart from Treasure – see below) normally belong to the landowner. Archaeologists will generally make provision with the landowner for objects they find to go into a public collection, such as a museum. Most metal-detectorists and some other finders often want to keep finds they make (for their own collection or to sell on).
- Landowners may wish to see the objects before they make any decisions about their future ownership; any written agreement between landowner and finder (see above) should make it clear what happens to the finds.
- It is recommended that all archaeological finds (apart from those found as part of an organised archaeological project, which should be published separately) should be recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (see below); its Finds Liaison Officers can also help determine whether a local museum may wish to acquire any of the finds discovered.
Recording and Reporting
- Under the Treasure Act 1996 finders of potential Treasure have a legal obligation to report such finds to the coroner within 14 days; it is usual practice for finders to report Treasure via their local PAS Finds Liaison Officer, who can also take delivery of the item. Once reported, and if a museum wishes to acquire the find, a coroner’s inquest is held to determine whether or not the find is Treasure.
- The following finds are Treasure:
- Any object (other than a coin) that is at least 10% (by weight of metal) gold or silver and that it is at least 300 years old. Prehistoric objects will be Treasure if any part of it is gold or silver;
- Any group of two or more metallic objects of any composition of prehistoric date that come from the same find;
- All coins from the same find provided they are at least 300 years old when found. If the coins contain less than 10% gold or silver there must be at least ten of them;
- Any object, whatever it is made of, that is found in the same place as, or had previously been together with, another object that is Treasure;
- Any object that would previously have been Treasure Trove, but does not fall within the specific categories given above, i.e. objects that are less than 300 years old, made substantially of gold or silver, and that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.
- Museums have the opportunity to acquire Treasure. These finds are valued by an independent committee (Treasure Valuation Committee) and a reward (equal to the full market value of the find) is usually divided between the finder, the landowner and/or the occupier, unless there is agreement otherwise. All parties may wish to donate their share of the reward to enable a museum to acquire a find at reduced or no cost.
- If a museum does not wish to acquire the find then it will be ‘disclaimed’ and handed back to the finder. The landowner will be informed of this decision and may object.
- There is an illegal trade in non-reported Treasure finds, thus depriving landowners and occupiers of land of a reward and museums of the opportunity to acquire such finds. The non-reporting of Treasure is illegal and carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 3 months and/or a fine of up to £5,000. The British Museum monitors eBay and elsewhere for unreported Treasure and liaises with the police as appropriate.
- For a full definition of the Treasure Act 1996 and the Treasure Act Code of Practice see www.finds.org.uk/treasure. For further information speak to your local PAS Finds Liaison Officer.
Other (non-Treasure) finds
- Apart from Treasure, finders have no other legal obligation to report finds (although human remains must be reported to the police). There might be a requirement to record archaeological finds as part of any land agri-environment stewardship agreements entered into (see above).
- All archaeological finds (whether there is a legal obligation to report them or not) provide valuable information about how and where people lived, worked and died in the past. Since 1997 the Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk), a national network of archaeologists known as Finds Liaison Officers, has been established to record archaeological objects found by the public.
- Finds Liaison Officers are keen to examine any archaeological finds found by the public. In order to make a full record (including description, photograph, weight and measurements) they will need to borrow such finds. A receipt will be given for all finds left for recording. The Finds Liaison Officer will want to record precise findspot information (i.e. where the object was found); increasingly, metal-detectorists and other people searching for archaeological objects use handheld GPS (Global Positioning Systems) devices to plot where finds are discovered. After recording, the find is normally returned to the person who submitted it.
- The aim of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is to make information about finds recorded as widely available as possible for education and research, while protecting personal details and archaeological sites from damage. Details of finds are published on the Scheme’s online database (www.findsdatabase.org.uk), but findspots will not be identified more precisely than a National Grid Reference (NGR) of four figures (which identifies finds to the nearest square km). The most sensitive findspots will not even be identified as accurately as this.
- The Portable Antiquities Scheme makes this data available to third parties, such as Historic Environment Records (the key local databases of information about historic sites etc held by many local authorities), and other statutory bodies and researchers, who must abide by the same terms and conditions for publishing data online as the Scheme follows.
- The information given to Finds Liaison Officers is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998.
- Both the CLA and NFU recommend that landowners and farmer occupiers should encourage the reporting of archaeological finds from their land.
- Have a written ‘finds agreement’ with anyone wishing to search on your land.
- Get any necessary permissions in writing before allowing detecting on your land; such as on that which is part of an agri-environment scheme or on protected sites.
- Ask to see all finds and ask that all archaeological finds are recorded with the PAS.
- Consider donating important finds to a local museum to benefit the local community, or given them first refusal on objects offered for sale.
- Report any illegal activity to the police via 101 or 999.
Will the reporting of finds lead to archaeological excavation?
Archaeologists will need your consent to excavate on your land. In a very small number of cases it is possible that an archaeologist might want to follow up a metal-detecting discovery with excavation; for example, if a hoard is discovered it may be useful to undertake a small excavation to learn more about why the find was buried. In these instances archaeologists will produce a ‘project plan’ outlining what they want to do, how and when, including any damage to crop or property and the full and proper restoration of the area afterwards. Archaeological excavation can be a very expensive process which is not undertaken lightly. It is standard practice that finds recovered by archaeologists are deposited (as part of the site archive) with a local museum for public benefit.
If finds are reported and something interesting is discovered, then might this not restrict what I can do on the land?
It is highly unlikely that metal-detector or field-walked finds alone would lead to restrictions on farming or lead to an area being protected (scheduled), but they do help archaeologists understand the risk to underlying archaeological remains and/or the archaeological potential of the land if it is ever developed or put forward for an agri-environment scheme. While archaeological remains might impact on planned development (and the developer is expected to cover the costs of any appropriate archaeological work needed) metal-detected or field-walked finds alone are unlikely to impede development without evidence for surviving archaeological remains below the plough-soil.
If a finder asks me to plough deeper in the hope of recovering further objects, what should I do?
Ploughing can cause damage to undisturbed archaeology and loss of information about the past, so if requested by a finder deep-ploughing should be resisted. It is likely that many of the objects uprooted would not be found immediately and would subsequently become damaged and be of less (archaeological and financial) value. It is better for objects in undisturbed ground to be excavated properly, although archaeologists (given limited resources) will normally only excavate sites at greatest risk of damage or those of greatest importance. It is also possible that deep ploughing could bring buried debris, such as building rubble, to the surface which could interfere with cultivation.
- The Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales: www.finds.org.uk/getinvolved/guides/codeofpractice
- Portable Antiquities Scheme, British Museum, London, WC1B 3DG.Tel: 020 7323 8611. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.finds.org.uk
- Country Land & Business Association (CLA), 16 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PQ. Tel: 020 7235 0511. Email: email@example.com. www.cla.org.uk
- National Farmers Union (NFU), Agriculture House, Stoneleigh Park, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, CV8 2TZ. Tel: (NFU Call First) 0870 845 8458. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.nfuonline.com
- Historic England guidance on agri-environment schemes: https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/caring-for-heritage/rural-heritage/metal-detecting-agri-environment-land/
This guidance had been produced by the Portable Antiquities Advisory Group, which includes the Country, Land & Business Association and the National Farmers Union, May 2018.
The PAS, working with the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) and National Farmers Union (NFU), has produced the following leaflet aimed at landowners: PDF