What would you do if you uncovered an unusual artefact in your garden? Dorset Council’s ‘finds’ expert, Ciorstaidh Hayward Trevarthen, is coming to Shaftesbury to explain how she identifies treasure and what happens if you find it. Alfred’s Keri Jones found out more.
It’s difficult describing what Ciorstaidh does concisely. When I suggest that she is the archaeological version of one of the valuers from the Antiques Roadshow, she modestly laughs it off. “I am a generalist in archaeological finds. I have a broad knowledge of archaeological material,” she says.
Shaftesbury and District Archaeological Group has invited her to talk about her work with the public. She’s talking on Tuesday evening at St Peter’s Church Hall.
When people uncover curious items, they often bring them to Ciorstaidh in the hope that they’ve unearthed something incredible. “Sometimes they have, and sometimes they haven’t. Any archaeological find is worth noting so I am happy to see anything people have found,” Ciorstaidh said. As you might imagine, she sometimes ends up shattering dreams. “A little bit,” she confirmed, adding, “But I’ve got lots of nice ways of saying that it is just a rock.”
She has a favourite find. “A lovely middle Palaeolithic hand axe. It is very beautiful and aesthetically pleasing but it is also amazing because it was made by a Neanderthal and was lying around in Dorset tens of thousands of years later.”
Many of the people who offer finds for Ciorstaidh to examine realise they have something of interest, because they are well informed about archaeology. “The metal detecting community that I work with often know a lot already about archaeological objects. The database I record everything onto is publicly available, so they’ve quite often researched before they bring things into me for recording. I record these things so we can develop our understanding of the county’s heritage and archaeology. Some people are more expert on mediaeval coins than me,” she laughed.
There are ancient burial mounds and prehistoric workings across this area. People have settled around Shaftesbury for millennia and Ciorstaidh says our county has been rich in archaeological finds. “We’ve got everything in Dorset from the earliest times – the lower Palaeolithic. It’s full of material and through recording this we are finding out where sites are and the patterns of settlements,” said Ciorstaidh. “Shaftesbury has a good, long heritage. There are the mediaeval and earlier foundations of the town, but you are in a landscape that is full of prehistoric and Roman material. It’s always interesting to come to Shaftesbury, which has been a focus of human activity for so long.”
If you uncover an item that piques your curiosity and you feel that Ciorstaidh should see it, you can send pictures to finds@dorset council.gov.uk. She also arranges regular sessions around the county, including Shaftesbury, where people can bring their unidentified objects. “It’s finds with mud on them – not stuff out of your attic. I’m willing to give as much information as I can on anything, but the material for photography and recording onto the database, usually the cut-off date is 1700.”
At Ciorstaidh’s event, she’ll outline some new regulations relating to finds and treasure. Many amateur archaeologists can only dream of uncovering something like a Saxon hoard, but it is possible here. In 1941, over 100 silver coins of King Ethelred II were found just outside Shaftesbury.
Ciorstaidh says there is a procedure that the finders need to follow. “If it falls into the category covered by the Treasure Act then it needs to be reported to the coroner. That needs to happen within fourteen days. Then it goes through a long process of assessment and we find out whether a museum wants it. If they do, it goes to an inquest with the coroner. A specialist report will decide whether it fits the criteria for treasure. Broadly, objects have to be over 300 years old and more than 10% precious metal,” she explained.
The 10% and 300-year rules still apply to coins made of precious metal but there needs to be more than one coin from the same era. If you uncovered a mediaeval gold coin and an Iron Age gold coin, they would not be treasure because they’re not from the same time. “There has to be considered an association,” said Ciorstaidh. “It also applies to base metal coins that are not formed of precious metal. We are thinking Roman coins mainly here. There has to be ten or more and you have to show they are from the same find. Groups of prehistoric objects, such as a little hoard of axes from the Bronze Age would be treasure.”
Often people get distracted by a shiny, precious-looking or recognisable artefact and discard its container. But objects associated with items that are classified as treasure are also important. “The pot that the coins were in, or if there are glass vessels alongside silver objects and they are from the same deposit, they would count as treasure. I don’t just record metal objects, I recall pottery, flint, tile, clay pipe and all sorts of things that come off the land. I’m keen to see everything. When people find the treasure, they often bring me the other things that they find on the same field to see if it is associated. It’s something we have to consider with treasure in particular.”
When you present Ciorstaidh with a noteworthy discovery she will take it from you. It is passed on to the coroner, who acts as an officer of the Crown in deciding whether it is treasure. The Crown then gives permission for museums to acquire the pieces.
Ciorstaidh says the concept of ‘finder’s keepers’ does not apply. “That doesn’t exist,” she laughed. “It’s a nice little phrase but there is no law of finders keepers.” But people will expect recompense. “With the treasure process, there is a reward. By reporting it officially and going through that process, once it is declared treasure there is a valuation committee that meets and assesses it at fair market value. That money is given out to the finder and the landowner in equal share. They do get a reward as there is an acknowledgement that they have done the right thing.”
If you don’t report your discovery and try to sell it online, you might get a knock on your door. “There have been some high-profile legal cases recently and people have been put away for quite a long time for not declaring treasure. It is essentially theft if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. That’s the view that the judge took in those cases in the Midlands,” Ciorstaidh said.
Even if you find something on your land that is considered to be treasure, you don’t own it. “Technically it belongs to the Crown. Other things on your land belonged to the landowner. People who go out finding things need to be aware of this. They need an agreement with the landowner if they going to search or remove material.” That could be something to consider if you’re a metal detectorist.
Ciorstaidh says that the form of treasure hunting technology has evolved greatly since it first became popular and it can help her with her recording of finds. “Some now come equipped with GPS so that’s good from my perspective because they can get an accurate find spot. I need to know as precisely as possible where it has come from. In isolation, without a find spot, an item might be interesting but is not very informative,” said Ciorstaidh.
There is usually an archaeological investigation put in place when any major housebuilding projects are approved by planners. And with so many new homes built recently around Shaftesbury you might consider that having the land turned over would reveal many interesting artefacts. Ciorstaidh says that’s not necessarily the case. “The problem we have with developments is if they import topsoils into gardens and we don’t know where that has come from. It can confuse the issue sometimes,” she said.
Ciorstaidh will give more information about the Treasure Act during her talk as well as a ‘tour’ of the kind of artefacts that she has recorded in the area. And you could make her year if you turn up with her dream find. “Another hand axe,” she laughed. “I’m a pre-historian at heart. I started my first excavation, I’m not telling you how long ago, at a Mesolithic, middle-Stone Age site. I always love to see flint material because it’s all we have got to show for that very early human activity. I get quite excited by flint still. It sounds dull, but it’s not to me!”
Ciorstaidh’s talk has been arranged by Shaftesbury and District Archaeological Group and is free to members or £3 to non-members. You can pay on the door of St Peter’s Church Hall , Gold Hill. The talk starts at 7.30pm on Tuesday, 10th March.