The Scheme's history

In the beginning…

In July 1996, the Treasure Act was passed. The Treasure Act replaced the medieval law of Treasure Trove in England and Wales. This Act gave some protection to certain archaeological finds, acting to encourage their reporting. However, a great many objects were being found by members of the public which were not ‘treasure’, but which were nonetheless important in building up knowledge of the archaeology and history of England and Wales.

The Treasure Act code of practice

In the past, finds such as these were, in some cases, taken to local museums to record. However, many more finds were unrecorded as there were not always systems in place to do so, often due to lack of resources.

A further problem was presented as the removal of an archaeological object from the ground without properly recording the circumstances of the find can lead to loss of knowledge of an object's context, or provenance. Context is vital in archaeology in order to be able understand past human activity. Archaeology is not simply about studying isolated objects. How these came to be where they were found, their relationship to other objects and stratigraphy (position in the ground), among other factors help build up a picture of the past as a whole.

The Portable Antiquities working document

These unrecorded or unprovenanced finds meant a loss to knowledge of the archaeology and history of England and Wales.

In March 1996, during the run-up to the passing of the new Treasure Act, what was then the Department of National Heritage (DNH) (now the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)) published Portable Antiquities. A discussion document. The aim of this document was to complement the impending Treasure Act, address the issue of non-treasure archaeological finds and to propose solutions for dealing with these.

Proposals for both voluntary and compulsory schemes for reporting and recording non-treasure finds were put forward in the document. Views on these were sought from a variety of interested parties, including professional archaeologists, metal detectorists and others.

The general response to the DNH’s proposals was that the recording of all archaeological finds was important and that a consistent voluntary scheme to record finds should be established.

The pilot scheme

Scheme coverage 1997-1999As a result, in December 1996, the DNH announced that funding would be provided for two years for a programme of six pilot schemes, starting in September 1997. The main aim of the pilot schemes was “to enable an accurate estimate to be made of the resources that would be needed to extend the scheme across the whole of England” (DNH 1997). The essential aim was to advance knowledge of history and archaeology.

The project was ultimately overseen by the DCMS and administered by the Museums & Galleries Commission (later Resource, now Museums, Libraries & Archives Council (MLA))

Expressions of interest in hosting the pilot schemes were then invited and host organisations chosen. The schemes were based in museums and archaeology services in Kent, Norfolk, the West Midlands, North Lincolnshire, the North West and Yorkshire. A Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) was put in place as part of each pilot scheme. The six posts and schemes were co-ordinated by a further post which was based at, and funded by, the British Museum.

These six regions were chosen for the pilot schemes in consultation with the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), and were representative of the existing diversity in recording finds systems. Some areas, such as Norfolk, had already established a tradition of recording finds and developed good relationships with finders and in particular among these, metal detectorists. Other areas, such as the North West, did not have systems in place for recording such finds.

The FLO’s job was to provide a point of contact for finders; someone who would record finds, provide further information on the finds and their history where possible, and, providing they did not qualify as Treasure,would afterwards return finds to the finder.

The FLO’s role was also to advise finders on ‘best ractice’ when uncovering findsand on issues such as legislation governing the finding of archaeological artefacts, for example why it is prohibited to look for finds on sites which are Scheduled Monuments.

Initially finds were recorded using either the host organisations’ existing systems or systems unique to that organisation. Some of the records created were paper based. It was soon established that a standardised, comprehensive system for recording finds was needed.

Scheme coverage 1999Thus a database was devised and put on the web in July 1999 to enable wider access to the information collated by the scheme. During the first year of the pilot scheme, over 13,500 objects were recorded. The scheme was very successful, but further funding was needed to extend the scheme nationally. Therefore, bids were successfully put forward to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to fund five more FLO posts plus an Outreach Officer post for eighteen months, starting from January-March 1999. The DCMS agreed to fund the existing posts during this period. The five new FLO posts were based in museums and archaeology services in Dorset & Somerset (one post covering two counties), Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Wales. The Outreach Officer was based at the British Museum, working alongside the Co-ordinator.

Shortly after this, further funding was applied for from the HLF to establish a comprehensive national scheme covering the whole of England and Wales. The full scheme would comprise a network of:

However, before awarding funding to extend the scheme nationally, the HLF required an independent evaluation of the work of the scheme and its impact. This delayed the progression of the application considerably and as an interim measure, while the evaluation was being undertaken, funding was ultimately secured from the DCMS and the HLF for the existing posts until September 2001. The HLF questioned the long-term sustainability of such an ambitious scheme, particularly in consideration of its funding. While a decision was being reached, funding for the existing posts was provided once more by the DCMS as an interim measure until March 2003.National coverage

However, in April 2002, the HLF decided to support the bid for three years starting in April 2003, bringing about the scheme as we know it today.

Expansion

As part of the new phase of the scheme’s existence, its overall aims were expanded and formally laid out in the leaflet, Portable Antiquities Scheme: Advice for Finders of Archaeological Objects.

The scheme’s aims are:

Greater emphasis was placed on the importance of the scheme’s educational role and thus developing outreach work such as talks and involving the public in archaeological work resulting from the uncovering of finds. All of which help develop and interest in and knowledge of history and archaeology, and also encourage best practice when dealing with finds. A new web-based database was developed which enabled improved recording of finds for the nationwide scheme and improved access to the finds data for all users of the database. A web site was developed alongside this, to provide further information on the work of the scheme and complement the information generated by the database.

Current arrangements

Advice for finders leafletAs from April 2006 the scheme secured full funding from the DCMS, until March 2008. Administration of the scheme changed hands from MLA to the British Museum. Also in April 2006, the Portable Antiquities Scheme central unit became an official department within the BM, the Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure.

The scheme continues to grow and now consists of a network of:

The work of the scheme is supported by many temporary assistants and volunteers, working with FLOs and Finds Advisers. Please contact your local FLO if you are interested in volunteering.

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