Mar 5, 2008

Debate on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (UPDATE)

The domestic legal and policy framework for portable antiquities in England and Wales is unique, and differs from the typical approach. Three things set it apart from most other nations of origin. First is the limited state ownership of undiscovered antiquities, the second compensation to finders of the full price of their finds if the find is acquired legally, and perhaps most importantly is the legalization of indiscriminate digging in many areas.

Metal detecting is legal in the UK, and is only prohibited in specially designated areas, known as scheduled ancient monuments.

Only limited classes of objects become the property of the crown when they are discovered. This includes objects composed of at least 10% gold or silver, multiple ancient coins, and prehistoric base-metals, which are objects such as bronze. Pottery and carved objects become the property of the finder.

All other objects become the property of the finder, and in some cases landowners and finders share the value of finds. Finders of objects encompassed under the Treasure Act are entitled to the full market value of the find, as estimated by an evaluation committee.

The PAS is a voluntary scheme which fills the gaps left by the treasure act. There exists some confusion about the scheme, as a lot of commentators incorrectly talk about the scheme as shorthand for compensating finders of antiquities. Such a measure already exists outwith the PAS. However, the PAS is a voluntary network, organized by a national network of finds liaison officers. They speak with metal detecting groups about good practice, conduct community outreach programs, and most importantly record finds. They are often based in local museums or archaeology departments. In some cases, museums approach finders and purchase these objects.

One of the most positive impacts of the scheme is its database, an impressive accumulation of information, with over 300,000 objects recorded.

The scheme has led to a dramatic increase in the number of objects being reported, and a dramatic increase in objects which finders have always been legally-required to disclaim.

This begs the question: should the approach of England and Wales to Antiquities be adapted to other nations? I think the national network of FLO’s has been tremendously successful, and setting aside the issues of cost and implementation, would ideally be implemented everywhere. In England and Wales, nearly 90% of finds take place on cultivated land, where industrial farming practices and chemicals can potentially damage objects near the surface.

The question of whether the limited state ownership of undiscovered antiquities, the compensation to finders of the full price of their finds, and the legalization of indiscriminate digging can be adapted to other nations remains in some doubt. It should be noted that the legal prohibitions on antiquities digging in England and Wales are far more lenient than in nearly every other nation. The policy sacrifices archaeological context without question.

If we compare Scotland, which has an ownership interest in all undiscovered antiquities with England and Wales the data would seem to lend support to the notion that declaring an ownership interest of only limited classes of objects, and only prohibiting digging in limited areas has produced better results. Between 1998 and 2004, Scotland reported an average of just over 300 finds. During the same period, an average of just over 300 objects which qualify as treasure were recorded, but there was an average of nearly 40,000 finds reported by the portable antiquities scheme per year.

The scheme resulted in a dramatic increase in the reporting of treasure. A small portion of this increase may be explained by the widening of scope of the treasure act. However, I think we can draw two conclusions from the scheme:

First, if individuals are compensated for finding antiquities they will look for them, and find them, in some cases this damages the archaeological context of course.

Second, as the specter of increased criminal investigation of the antiquities trade and seems increasingly likely, with massive investigations coming to light in recent days in both Italy and here in California I think certainly the trade itself will have to find ways to justify its continued existence. Should the antiquities trade continue to exist in some form, the approach in England and Wales would seem to offer an interesting, and inarguably a successful model.

It should be noted that legally sanctioning digging, or funding digging would be politically unpopular in many nations with a strong cultural identity, such as Italy. I think cultural policy makers should approach any strategy which might incentivize digging with great caution.

There's a couple of interesting items on the Portable Antiquities Scheme blog, and I'd like to boost the signal a bit and post them here. First is a video of Peter Twinn, a metal detectorist and archaeology student at Bristol Universtiy, who was interviewed in a brief piece on the BBC.




In addition, this afternoon at 4.30 GMT, there will be a half-hour debate in Westminster Hall on "The Future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme", and you can watch it live here on Parliament TV. I'll be watching, and I'll comment here later on today.

UPDATE:

Essentially the debate was a bit of a letdown. It's available here. It extolled the virtues of the scheme, but amounted to an argument about whether freezing the funding amounted to a de facto decrease in funding its operations.

I was struck again at how universally popular the scheme appears to be (though funding does not appear to share a correlation with popularity). There were no criticisms that it was perhaps incentivizing the looting of sites, but rather that it was as the Culture Minister Margaret Hodge claimed open to everyone from a secondary school student to doctoral dissertations. That seems the be the tremendous benefit of the scheme. I wonder if such a debate were held in Italy, or Iraq, or another source nation if there would be a similar kind of support for the program, or if its popularity may be a peculiar combination of cultural pride coupled with how and where objects are found in the countryside in most of England and Wales. I'll confess I haven't made my mind up on that question.




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