You’ll dig this — there really is treasure in them there fields

Although the use of metal detectors is illegal in Ireland, some detectorists in the UK have found way more than they bargained for when out using them, writes Trevor Laffan
You’ll dig this — there really is treasure in them there fields

TREASURE HUNT: Metal detectorists can stumble upon rich pickings, but there are laws governing the finds too. Picture iStock

TREASURE hunting sounds interesting but, as someone who can never find the car keys or my wallet, even when they’re staring me in the face, I don’t see any point in trying to find something that’s well hidden.

Some people can’t help themselves though.

There was a report on BBC recently about an investigation taking place in Northern Ireland over the alleged removal of artefacts from a protected wreck of the Spanish Armada off the County Antrim coast.

Reports were received that divers may have taken objects from La Girona, an Armada warship which sank off Portballintrae in 1588. Access to the site of La Girona is restricted under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) and anyone diving the restricted area without a licence may be prosecuted.

The wreck in Northern Ireland waters has special levels of protection under the law and people diving on wrecks around the coast have been asked to check the rules beforehand. The removal of artefacts without the proper authorisation could land you in hot water, but it’s easy to see the attraction.

In 1942, the SS Tilawa was on its way to South Africa when it was sent to the bottom of the Indian Ocean by a Japanese submarine. With it went its cargo of 2,364 bars of silver valued at £32 million. The bars were headed for the South African Mint to be turned into coins.

They laid there undisturbed until 2017 when Ross Hyett, aged 67, a retired racing driver led a treasure-hunting mission to recover the bars of silver from the wreck and brought them to England, where a dispute over ownership is being decided in court. Either way, Mr Hyett will surely benefit financially from his find.

Charlie Parker wrote in The Times about the largest gold nugget ever found in Britain. It was a 22-carat piece of gold discovered in a Scottish river by a treasure hunter. The location of the find is being kept a secret because they want to avoid attracting large numbers of gold hunters to the area.

Weighing in at 121.3g, the nugget is the biggest of its kind in the UK and is thought to be worth £80,000. It was in two pieces when the man found it, but when they were put together, they formed a doughnut shape with a hole in the middle. One mineralogist suggested the piece is so old that the hole could have been made with a Neolithic antler pick, which were used by farmers in the Iron Age.

If that’s true, then it’s highly unlikely the original owner will come back to claim his nugget, so the finder hopes it will be purchased by a museum, but it may have to be handed over to the Crown estate. 

The UK authorities must be notified about finds like these. Keeping quiet will land you in bother.

Indeed, in Ireland, the use of detection devices to search for archaeological objects without consent is an offence, and to be in possession of a detection device at a protected monument is also against the law.

Carrying out an excavation to recover archaeological objects found using a detection device without a licence would also constitute an offence.

All archaeological objects in the Irish state without a known owner are property of the state and must be reported to the National Museum of Ireland within 96 hours of discovery. Archaeological objects include a wide range of materials including coins, buckles, buttons and other metal objects which could be of quite recent date depending on the context of their discovery.

The best information available is the booklet available on the Garda website https://www.garda.ie/en/crime-prevention/advice-to-the-public-on-use-of-metal-detection-devices-.pdf and indeed they have taken to twitter recently to promote this https://mobile.twitter.com/gardaínfo/status/1400800858561028097.

Not all detectorists in the UK are digging for buried gold though.

In 1992, Eric Lawes was using a metal detector in a farmer’s field in East Anglia, in the UK, helping a friend to locate a hammer that he had dropped earlier.

When his machine beeped, he thought he had found the missing lump hammer, but what he discovered was a little more valuable.

He found what is now known as the Hoxne Hoard, a priceless Roman ‘treasure chest’ of 14,780 gold and silver coins, plus 200 pieces jewellery, ornaments, and tableware.

Eric received £1.75million for his find, and, although there was no legal requirement to do so at the time, he shared the cash with the farmer on whose land he had been searching.

And yes, he also found the elusive hammer.

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