Britain's Fight for Buried Treasures

Sometime in the middle of the 15th century, a well-to-do merchant from London buried more than 6,700 gold and silver coins on a sloping hillside in Surrey. He was fleeing the War of the Roses and no doubt planned to return during better times. But he never did. The coins lay undisturbed until one September evening in 1990 when local resident Roger Mintey stumbled across them with a metal detector and dug them up. Named the Reigate Hoard, Mintey's find—much of which now sits in the British Museum—earned him roughly $350,000, enough to quit his job with a small manufacturer and spend more time pursuing lost treasure.

But digging up the past is a contentious matter in Britain. In many European countries, people wielding metal detectors face tough regulations. In the U.K., however, officials introduced a voluntary scheme in 1997 encouraging hobbyists to report their discoveries (except for those falling under the definition of treasure, including hoards like Mintey's, which they are required to report)—but allowing them to keep what they find, or receive a reward. Last year, a stash far more impressive than Mintey's was uncovered in a field outside Birmingham. Called the Staffordshire Hoard, it consists of more than 1,500 gold and silver objects from the seventh century and was valued at more than $4.5 million. While local museums scramble to raise enough money to keep the hoard off the open market, it sits in limbo, owned by the Crown but facing claims by the landowner and the metal detectorist who found it.

The find marks the latest battleground in the increasingly heated clash between the country's 10,000–20,000 metal detectorists and the archeologists determined to protect its artifacts. "We've got a lot of enemies," says Mintey, who heads up his local metal-detecting club, which urges members to avoid known archeological sites and obtain permission from landowners before searching their property. Supporters say the voluntary scheme stems the loss of valuable information about artifacts that would have otherwise gone unrecorded; since 1997, it's logged more than 450,000 items. "Archeologists had to embrace [us]," says Trevor Austin, who heads the National Council for Metal Detecting. "Otherwise they would not get any finds into their museums." At the same time, conscientious detectorists have been overshadowed by a ruthless breed known as "nighthawks" who venture onto protected locations under cover of darkness and have been known to attack those who try to stop them.

Detractors argue that metal detectorists are damaging the archeological record. "Every single country except Great Britain is condemning it," says archeologist Paul Barford, an outspoken critic. Furthermore, detectorists don't report everything; Heritage Action, a group campaigning against the scheme, estimates that nearly 3 million items have slipped through the cracks over the past decade.

The debate centers on the larger question of who owns the past. "There's been a slow move over the centuries that precious old things belong to us all," says Cambridge University archeologist Christopher Chippindale. But in Britain at least, the lure of buried treasure could change all that.