From Roman coins to Saxon treasures – the UK’s rich history lends itself to the discovery of antiquities unseen for millennia
From the Roman legions of Julius Caesar to the Viking invaders, many major historical events have taken place on British soil over the past millennia.
And this British soil – along with the waters surrounding the British Isles – has become home to thousands of artifacts that those ancient empires left behind.
So what are the best places in the UK to unearth buried treasure?
How is treasure defined in the UK?
There is a legal definition of treasure because there are rules governing what you can do with it if you find it (more on that below).
Gold and silver objects, clusters of coins from the same finds over 300 years old or prehistoric “base metal assemblages” are all classed as treasures under the Treasures Act 1996.
The term “base metal assemblies” covers things like brooches and rings.
Specifically, the law states that any metallic object that is not a coin, whose weight consists of at least 10% of precious metal (for example, gold or silver) and that is at least 300 years old at the time of its discovery is considered a treasure.
If the object dates from prehistoric times, it is considered a treasure if part of it contains precious metal.
If you discover two or more coins from the same find that are at least 300 years old and contain 10% gold or silver (or at least 10 coins if they contain less than 10%), those would also be a treasure.
Pieces are deemed to come from the same find if they are:
- Part of a treasure that has been deliberately hidden
- Found in smaller groups, for example the contents of a handbag which may have been abandoned or lost;
- Clearly part of votive (i.e. religious) or ritual deposits.
If you find other items under any of the above circumstances, it’s treasure, no matter what it’s made of.
In 2019, the most recent year for which we have complete data, 34% of treasure finds were from the “post-medieval” period (i.e. any time between the years 1500 and 1818) .
That year, 26% of the treasures were classified as medieval, meaning they were from any time between the end of Roman rule and the Tudor dynasty.
There were a smaller number of Roman, Iron Age and Bronze Age finds.
What are the rules for finding buried treasure?
If you are in England or Wales, you must report a treasure to your local coroner within 14 days of first finding it, or within 14 days of realizing it might be treasure.
If the object does not meet the definition of treasure but you think it might be of cultural significance, you can report it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England or the Cymru PAS in Wales.
Once you report a treasure, you will be contacted by a local official or museum curator to discuss how and where you made your find.
They then write a report on the discovery and the museums can take an interest in it if it is a treasure.
An investigation will then take place, which usually involves the finder of the treasure, as well as the occupant of the place where it was found and the owner of the site.
If a museum wishes, a body known as the Treasure Appraisal Committee will ask an expert to appraise the find.
You may be entitled to a share of the assessment – alongside any landowners or tenants.
And if no one wants the treasure, you can keep it provided no other interested party objects.
In Scotland the process is a bit different because according to the law you need to save the find site with a national reference grid and immediately inform the Cellule des Trésors of the decentralized administration or the archaeologist of your municipality.
If you don’t report your findings, you risk a prison sentence.
These coins turned out to be part of the largest Anglo-Saxon coin hoard ever found in England.
Where is the most buried treasure?
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has released annual figures for buried treasure discoveries up to 2020.
However, the 2020 data is considered “provisional” and therefore does not include a breakdown of the type of treasure that was found.
This data covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland – Scotland is not included in the figures as it has a separate system for reporting finds within Scotland.
It also includes finds that ultimately failed to meet the treasure criteria – although in 2019 this represented less than 1% of the recorded catch.
Globally, 1,077 discoveries were recorded in 2020 with 1,055 of them were discovered in England.
Wales was the other 22 treasures, as Northern Ireland recorded none.
The overall figure marked a drop of more than 27% from the number of 1,303 treasure discoveries in 2019, which included 22,620 artifacts.
Based on data between 2012 and 2020, here are the places where you are most likely to find buried treasure:
- Norfolk – 1,021 finds
- North Yorkshire (including York) – 474
- Wiltshire (including Swindon) – 387
In 2020 only 104 discoveries have been recorded there – 33 more than in Hampshire, second.