The British public have discovered many hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects, and today the British Museum reveals that the number recorded to its Portable Antiquities Scheme has hit a milestone 1.5 million. These finds have radically transformed what we know about life through time on the British Isles.
Detectorists Are of Huge Importance to Scholars
The British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was first set up in 1997 so that archaeological objects found by the public can be voluntarily recorded to help advance our knowledge of past. Now, it reached 1.5 million object records. The item that helped cross this historic milestone was a medieval lead papal bulla (a seal for authorising papal documents, such as edicts and indulgencies) of Pope Innocent IV (r.1243-54), that was found in Shropshire.
All the discoveries on the PAS database since its inception 23 years ago have been made by members of the public. Most of them are found buried in the ground by metal detectorists. Thanks to the public’s efforts, including those made through responsible metal-detecting, our understanding of past communities living in Britain over thousands of years has radically improved. Many individual finds have transformed what we know almost overnight and have become some of the most famous historical objects in the UK, such as the gold treasures of the Staffordshire Hoard.
Most objects that are unearthed are kept by the people who find them, but a number of discoveries are so important to the history of the life in Britain that they have been acquired or displayed by museums for the public to enjoy. But all the information recorded on the PAS database is freely available to anyone, and is used by students, scholars, researchers and the public alike.
The Most Important Discoveries Made by the Public
To celebrate this important milestone, the British Museum with BBC History Magazine revealed 10 discoveries by the public and recorded on the PAS which experts have judged to have most transformed our knowledge of the past. These include a silver-gilt badge in the shape of a Boar found near the site of King Richard III’s death in battle, and the discovery of thousands of Roman ‘grots’ – worn-down coins – which has reshaped our understanding of Roman Britain. The full list can be seen in the BBC History magazine.
There is a large diversity amongst the 1.5 million discoveries. They range in size from vast coin hoards – the biggest was the Frome Hoard of 52,500 coins – to one-of-a-kind single pieces such as the 3,500-year-old Ringlemere Cup. The oldest items include prehistoric-worked flint from 700,000 years ago; the youngest include 20th-century military badges. Recorded finds include arrowheads, axes, beads, brooches, buckles, coins, combs, finger-rings, gaming pieces, knives, sculpture, spindle whorls, tokens and vervels.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme
PAS was first created as a pilot scheme in 1997. In 2003, it was expanded across the whole of England and Wales (thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant) to ensure that knowledge and information about finds was recorded for public benefit. The PAS is a partnership project, managed by the British Museum (in England) and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. It is funded in England through the British Museum’s grant-in-aid from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with local partner contributions, and is one of the main ways the museum reaches across the UK through its national activity.
The front line of the Scheme in England is its network of 40 Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) who are archaeologists trained to identify and record finds. They are all locally based covering the whole country, employed within museums and other heritage organisations, but overseen the British Museum.
Lockdown vs. Detectorists
From 23 March to 12 May 2020, metal-detecting and other forms of searching for archaeological finds were essentially prohibited under the coronavirus lockdown. Only a handful of objects were still being found, mostly by people digging in their gardens. These include some coin finds, pottery fragments and worked flint.
But while the number of new reported discoveries decreased during lockdown, work to record a backlog of finds continued. Over 6,000 objects that were found before 23 March were uploaded on to the PAS database during the six-week lockdown period, helping to push the overall figure towards the 1.5million milestone.
Since the relaxing of lockdown rules from 13 May 2020, it has been possible for finders to go out searching for objects again as long as they maintain social-distancing rules. There remains a legal obligation for people to report Treasure finds and stop if they find any archaeology in situ (so that a find, such as a coin hoard, remains undisturbed from when it was deposited). For other finds, finders are being asked to make a note of the findspot and hold onto these (in most cases) until they can be brought in to the FLO for recording.
Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said “1.5 million finds is an historic milestone for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the British Museum wishes to thank everyone who has voluntarily come forward to record their discoveries so we can all learn more about our shared past. We are proud of our work with the PAS and it is a unique partnership between the British Museum and our national and local partners across England and Wales. We look forward to many more objects being recorded, and who knows what exciting discoveries are yet to be found.”
Michael Lewis, Head of PAS and Treasure at the British Museum, said: “There is no doubt that these finds have transformed our understanding of the history and archaeology of England and Wales, and that of Britain more generally. Some of these items are spectacular and are finds of a lifetime. But even the smallest and most modest items offer clues about our history, so we encourage everyone who makes a find to continue to come forward.”
Click here to search the full PAS database.
And here you can read the BBC History Magazine revealing 10 discoveries by the public.
In 2009, CoinsWeekly introduced the Portable Antiquities Scheme to its readers on the occasion of the PAS’s 20th birthday.
In the following year, PAS was threatened by financial cuts.
And in 2016, a detectorist discovered an important Anglo-Saxon settlement.
And most recently, the PAS reported that the number of Treasure finds made by the public hit a record level in 2019!