How buried treasure can unearth legal proceedings


FOR five days last July, unemployed amateur treasure hunter Terry Herbert roamed a farm belonging to a friend in Staffordshire with a 14-year-old metal detector he bought at a car boot sale. Fifteen hundred pieces of gold, silver and other artefacts later, and Herbert had uncovered one of the most important archaeological discoveries of modern times. “Imagine you’re at home and somebody keeps putting money through your letterbox, that’s what it was like,” Herbert said after the find, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

Herbert, who lives alone in a council flat and is on disability benefit, looks set to share in an estimated £2 million (€2.2 million) windfall, which he will split with the farmer in whose field he found the treasure. Meanwhile, thousands of people queued at the Birmingham Museum and Art gallery at the weekend to catch a glimpse of the treasure. Archaeologist Roger Bland, who oversaw the extraction of the find from its location, said, “This is just a fantastic find, completely out of the blue. It will make us rethink the dark ages.”

Yet, had Terry Herbert been combing a field in Ireland with his metal detector and stumbled on a similar find, rather than be praised for his efforts, he would most likely be facing a Garda investigation and preparing himself for court. In this country, it is illegal to use a metal detector without a licence to search for archaeological treasure.

The issue of metal detecting in Ireland first came to prominence in the 1970s, when the devices could be bought at reasonable prices, and were used on beaches and at known archaeological sites. Prof Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, senior lecturer in the school of archaeology at UCD, notes that: “Although many individuals were highly responsible, it was not unknown for archaeologists to discover holes dug into monuments in search of potential treasure pinpointed by metal detectors.”

The issue of amateur metal detectors came to a head in the 1980s, when a father and son found a chalice at the monastic site of Derrynaflan in Co Tipperary. Not happy with the reward offered by the National Museum of Ireland, the pair challenged the State’s rightful ownership to the find. They were offered a sum of £5.5 million by the courts, but the Supreme Court later overturned this decision.

“It had been a close shave,” says Prof Ó Súilleabháin, “and it was in this atmosphere that the 1987 National Monuments (Amendment) Act was passed as a stop-gap initiative to prevent a free-for-all. The Act banned the unlicensed use of detection devices at or near archaeological sites, and empowered the Garda to confiscate them in those circumstances. The 1994 Act consolidated the protection and dealt with other issues arising from the Supreme Court decision of the 1980s.” More recently, a father and son were found guilty of metal detecting under this Act and given the probation act at Birr District Court, having used a metal detector at archaeological sites.

Amateur treasure hunter Ciaran Curtin believes the laws in Ireland in relation to metal detecting are too prohibitive and encourage a black market in antiquities and archaeological finds to exist. Curtin grew up in the Curragh camp in Co Kildare and developed an interest in the hobby at a young age. “I think that 90 per cent of people who go metal detecting do it because of a love of history and not for monetary gain,” he says. Mostly, Curran prowls beaches near his home in east Cork, or from time to time he will try his luck in fields if he gets permission from the owner. Some of his finds to date include pre-decimal coins, military medals and a modern gold ring.

“I think the legislation we have was brought in as a knee-jerk reaction to the Derrynaflan situation,” Curtin says, “If I was found with a metal detector near a national monument or archaeological site, it could be taken off me and I could receive a €1,000 fine. If I was found removing an item from a site, I could be liable for a €50,000 fine or up to five years in jail. So I never really search in fields anymore. I’d be afraid to find anything, to be honest. It’s not worth the hassle.”

Curtin points to the fact that there are more than 10,000 metal detectors in the UK and that co-operation with local archaeologists is very strong. “I think there would be a lot more involved in Ireland were it not for the laws. If you find something here, the State does not have to pay a reward or give you proper recognition. There is a big snob factor about metal detecting among archaeologists, in my experience.”

Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, denies that Ireland’s legislation is damaging prospects of finding archaeological material. He also says a generous reward is usually given to anyone who finds items of significance. “A black market in artefacts existed before we brought in legislation in 1994, and now we have made it considerably more difficult for dealers and collectors to trade and be in possession of artefacts,” he notes.

While the legislation in Ireland makes it illegal to search for items without a licence, hundreds of such permits are issued every year. “It’s very simple: if you search without a licence you run the risk of prosecution,” Kelly says. “The range of material that you are not allowed keep is very broad, and can include objects such as coins and even some material dating to the 20th century, so people need to be aware of this.“

Kelly points to the fact that the terrain for archaeological finds in the UK is different to Ireland, where artefacts can often turn up in fields or non-archaeological sites. The law in Ireland may be stringent, but he argues that many European countries are putting similar measures in place. The current legislation is to protect Ireland’s heritage, not hinder it, he argues. “The bottom line here is that if you dig out a find from a site, you destroy part of the heritage of Ireland. Almost no finds of any archaeological significance were ever found in Ireland other than on archaeological sites. This notion that we are missing out in not allowing the public able walk across a ploughed field with a metal detector in hand is nonsense.”