David Wood, general-secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting, has been treasure-hunting for more than 21 years. 'I've found all sorts of things, including 15th-century fish-hooks and medieval pilgrim souvenirs. Last year I uncovered a sheath of 15th-century arrows.'
It is difficult to estimate how many enthusiasts there are. If you go by sales of detectors there are about 180,000, but the National Council has only between 7,000 and 8,000 members, according to Mr Wood.
Laws relating to treasure- hunting date back to Edward I. The general position is that if the original owner of an object cannot be located by reasonable means the finder can keep what he or she has found. But if the true owner should reappear, the finder must hand over whatever has been found.
If the original owner of gold or silver objects that have been hidden underground or in buildings cannot be traced, they become treasure-trove and the property of the Crown. The rules do not extend to coins and other antiquities made of copper, bronze or other base metals. Nor does it include property deliberately abandoned or lost. Treasure-trove only applies if the last owner intended to recover the property at a later date.
Any find must not be concealed and should be reported to the local coroner, the police or the local museum. It should then be handed over. If finders fail to comply they may be convicted of theft.
The coroner may decide to hold an inquest to decide whether the find is treasure- trove. The coroner will also rule on any dispute over the identity of the finder. .
If the haul is declared treasure-trove it will be offered to a local museum or, if it is exceptional, to the British Museum. The finder will be paid the market value for the find, which is assessed by an independent reviewing committee appointed by the Treasury. This committee also makes the payment to the finder, which is an ex gratia one and is intended to encourage proper reporting of finds. If no museum wants the treasure- trove, it will be returned to the finder.
The frequency with which inquests are held depends on the local coroner. Any payment is made to the actual finder and not to the owner of the land on which it is found, nor is it made to an employer if the trove is found by an employee in the course of his employment.
The British Museum is always interested to hear about any finds. The students' rooms at the museum will help identify any object free of charge, although the museum will not carry out valuations. However, leading auction houses, such as Sotheby's, will carry out free valuations.
Metal detectors can be bought for between pounds 60 and pounds 700. Potential treasure sites can be located by sifting through old public library records. Old market and fair sites are often rich hunting- grounds. Old maps and local historical societies can also provide sources of useful information. Some metal detector clubs organise weekend trips and pay farmers for the right to search their land.
Land-owners are usually keen to avoid the publicity associated with an exciting find because they fear a deluge of treasure-hunters pouring onto their land.
There is a code of conduct for detector users. It cautions them not to trespass and to ask permission before venturing onto any private land. All unusual historical finds should be reported to the land-owner.
Users are reminded that it is illegal for anyone to use a metal detector on a listed ancient monument unless permission has been obtained from the secretary of state for the environment.
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