Do you ever dream of discovering hidden treasure? Are your eyes peeled as you walk across fields looking for a glint of bronze or silver in the ground ? For some people finding such treasure is not the stuff of children’s storybooks but a dream which comes true.
In the last four months the “treasures” that have come Lydia Prosser’s way have ranged from a neolithic polished stone axe head found by a walker in South Lancashire to a Roman shield boss, (the centre of a shield), from North Lancashire to an early medieval silver and garnet scabard mount and what is called a terret ring from a chariot dating from around 100 B.C.
Lydia is not a treasure hunter extraordinary, but nevertheless has her own dream job - as one of Lancashire and Cumbria’s Finds Liaison Officers for the Portable Antiquities Scheme*.
The scheme, which is managed through the British Museum, exists to ensure our heritage is recorded and to enable a closer look at items which are found both accidentally and as part of that increasingly popular hobby interest metal detecting.
It also exists to help set the ball rolling to ensure that treasures of national importance can be offered to museums, with fair recompense given, as appropriate, to both finder and owners of the land where treasure has been discovered.
Lydia and fellow officer Stuart Noon are employed through Lancashire County Council and work with metal detecting groups and individual finders.
The new Treasure Act of 1996 redefined what treasure is and its significance.
Prior to that date to be declared treasure proof was needed that items were buried with the intention that it would be recovered - hence the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk, dating from around the seventh century, did not fit the “treasure” definition as the found items were not buried for retrieval but to honour the dead.
Lydia and Stuart now offer finders the chance to learn more about the objects they have discovered locally and to see their finds recorded in a national information archive.
Lydia acknowledges metal detecting groups cover “a heck of a footprint” in Lancashire and Cumbria and has forged links with such groups.
Stuart liaises with Blackpool, Burnley, Blackburn and Barrow groups, while Lydia’s reach includes Cumbria and she meets Lancaster and Kendal club members regularly.
Each find that is brought in is identified, dated as accurately as possible, photographed. measured and its description noted. The Finds Liaison officers, who are based in Preston, also share information with and can access advice from experts from the British Museum.
Lydia, who has a degree in Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic from the University of Cambridge and is studying for a Masters in medieval archaeology at the University of York, said: “We basically deal with any objects over 300 years old found by anybody. We deal mainly with metal detectorists and have regular Finds Days where members of the public can bring in anything they’ve found. We do get objects found by people just walking their dogs or found by builders. . I get quite a lot of people e-mailing to say is it (their find) important?”
Lydia stresses their interest extends way beyond items with precious metals and significant monetary value. The Roman shield boss, found recently was in such perfect condition, bar a few missing rivets, that some thought it a reenactment model.
She noted: “Often finds that are not legally defined as treasure can be as interesting. It’s not often you find a complete Roman shield boss. It was copper alloy, not classified as treasure and so not offered to a museum. It was still a fantastic find. There was a rare seventh century Byzantine buckle in last week that doesn’t count as treasure but is a rare and interesting find. You can get 1001 polished posy rings but only one stone axe treasure.
“We take in anything that’s over 300 years old. That can be as old as a neolithic polished stone axe from 4,000 B.C. or it can be a little Charles I tuppence or anything in between. We take in pottery. We take in organic materials e.g. Roman leather shoes. Flint around here is quite interesting as it’s not naturally occurring so any has been brought to this area for a particular reason.”
“My most exciting find recently was a little runic object - a little fragment from a gilded Anglo Saxon pinhead with little runes on. AngloSaxon runes are quite rare and particularly of the early period about 800A.D.
Another fascinating item was a medieval seal matrix (mould) for a lady called Isabella de Verne. The image to be stamped as a wax seal includes three scallop shells with trefoils and a squirrel on its hind legs. Lydia explains: “Aristocratic ladies in the 13th and 14th centuries sometimes kept squirrels.”
All relevant finds , which fit the age criteria, are recorded meticulously with Lydia likening her role to an intermediary between archaeology and metal detecting. They may be kept for a number of weeks, but are returned as soon as possible, unless designated as treasure when valuation follows.
She said: “Metal detecting is definitely a growing hobby. We advise detectors not to go too deep.”
Lydia’s role is also an educational one, spreading the message that the context of a find is important for archaeological recording and if an item is dug up and the surrounding soil mixed up valuable information can be lost.
Grid references for finds are noted but kept as restricted information to protect find sites.
Treasure has to be reported to the Coroner within 28 days - directly or through the Finds Liaison Officers. Lydia explained: “Our records are checked with curators at the British Museum ... If it’s a significant item they will ask for it to be sent down to the British Museum.”
If an item is deemed treasure relevant local museums will be asked if they are interested in acquiring it. The Treasure Valuation Committee meets four times a year.
Sue Ashworth, the county council’s Senior Museums Manager, took a key role some years ago in ensuring the renowned Viking Silverdale Hoard was retained by Lancashire. She explained how £110,000 was raised with contributions coming from several funds including the National Heritage Memorial Fund and The Art Fund and The Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund.
Sue stressed the intention is to recompense fairly finder and landowner for discovering something which comes into the public domain,
She recalled: “We showed the Silverdale hoard very swiftly at Lancaster City Museum and the Museum of Lancashire. Some people have speculated since it was part of a war chest."
The finder had discovered a lead container which was first thought to be of no value, but as the container was lifted from the earth the Silverdale Hoard fell out.
It turned out the contents aligned closely with the Cuerdale hoard found in Lancashire in 1835.
Sue stressed: “If it is not deemed to be treasure there is no compulsion (for it) to come into a public collection.”
• Lydia can be contacted at email@example.com
• Stuart Noon can be contacted at stuart.noon@lancashire .gov.uk.
• There is a drop-in session the last Thursday of the month at Lancaster City Museum from 11am to 2pm when finds can be brought in for advice and there is also a drop-in session on the last Friday of the month at Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum from 1.30pm to 3.30pm.
See www.finds.org and search LANCUM for records of finds in Lancashire and Cumbria.
* What is the Portable Antiquities Scheme?
The Portable Antiquities Scheme covers all of England and Wales. It is a voluntary scheme to record archaeological objects found by the public.
It aims to advance knowledge of the history and arcaheology of England and Wales by recording items found, increase awareness of the educational value of finds and stengthen links between metal-detectorists and archaeologist.
There is no legal obligation to report finds unless material constitutes “treasure” or you believe it may be treasure.
• Museums may wish to acquire non-treasure finds, but only with the finder and landowner’s agreement.
• Details of finds (but not their exact location) will be published on the database www.finds.org.uk
What is classified as Treasure?
Under the Treasure Act 1966 there is a legal obligation to report all finds of treasure.
There are five categories of treasure.
1. Any metallic object other than a coin that is at least 10 per cent by weight precious metal i.e. gold or silver and is 300 or more years old,
If an object is prehistoric it will be deemed treasure if any part of it is a precious metal.
2.Any group of two or more metallic objects of prehistoric date from the same find.
3. All coins from the same find - provided they are at least 300 years old. If comprising less than 10 per cent gold or silver there must be at least 10 coins.
4. Any objects found with treasure items.
5. Objects previously deemed Treasure Trove and excluded from 1-4. i.e. objects less than 300 years old, substantially made of gold or silver, deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.
• All treasure finds must be reported to the Coroner of the district in which finds were made within 14 days or within 14 days of the realisation it might be treasure. You can report to the Coroner in person, by letter, telephone, fax or email or enlist the aid of a local Finds Liaison Officer. Penalties for not reporting treasure without reasonable excuse is imprisonment up to three months and/or a fine up to £5,000.
• If an item is thought to be treasure the British Museum is informed and checks will be made to see if they or any other museum wishes to acquire it. If a museum expresses interest an inquest will be held to decide whether the item is Treasure and it will then be taken to the British Museum for valuation by the Treasure Valuation Committee. The valuation figure is the amount a museum would expect to pay to purchase an item. Finders and landowners can claim a reward based on the valuation (usually 50 per cent each), or may donate their finds.
Top tips on Metal-Detecting
1. Permission should be sought from landowner/occupier before detecting begins.
2. To avoid subsequent disputes it is advised to get permission and agreement in writing regarding the ownership and recording of any finds.
3.The Portable Antiquities Scheme encourages metal-detectors to abide by the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal-Detecting.
As more finds are recorded experts can begin to trace patterns of distribution and learn more about the nation's past.
4. Finds should need no treatment other than dry storage. Do not attempt to clean any discoveries.
5. Do not dig too deep as the context of a find can be easily destroyed,