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Museums: Treasure Troves Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Damian Robinson

[image] A new exhibit in the U.K. celebrates archaeological discoveries made by amateurs. Some of the finds include a 550,000-year-old hand ax, left, Iron Age gold jewelry, upper right, and the spectacular Hoxne hoard of Roman gold and silver coins, lower right. (Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Some of Britain's greatest archaeological treasures have been discovered by accident. Stories abound like that of retired farmer Eric Lawes, who found the Hoxne hoard of Roman gold and silver coins while looking in a field for a lost hammer. Possibly the earliest man-made object in northern Europe is a 550,000-year-old Paleolithic hand ax discovered by a man walking his dog on the beach. Hearing stories like these can't help but make us all feel that treasure, in whatever shape, size, or form, is out there just waiting for discovery. This idea is the starting point for the excellent new exhibition "Buried Treasure: Finding our Past," now at London's British Museum and slated to tour the U.K. over the next two years. Focusing on amateur finds, the exhibition brings together some of the most important discoveries ever made in Britain, highlighted by the incredible Roman silver plate from Mildenhall.

But the exhibition isn't just about large objects and spectacular finds. On display is a wonderful collection of miniature children's toys dating from the Middle Ages. Found on the banks of the Thames river by metal detectorists, these pewter artifacts are not as flashy as Roman gold, but prior to their discovery, medieval childhood was thought to lack many of the comforts that we take for granted today. So even the smallest of finds has the potential to change how we look at the past.

Today, anyone in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland who finds treasure, defined by law as any object more than three hundred years old and made of more than 10 percent gold and silver, must by law inform the government of the discovery ("Hunting for Treasure," July/August 2002). The government also encourages the reporting of archaeological artifacts that do not qualify as treasure through a voluntary system known as the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Since 1997, more than one hundred thousand objects have been brought to the government's attention, while the number of treasure troves being reported has also risen dramatically. Kevan Hall, a florist who found a cache of Iron Age gold jewelry near the town of Winchester, is just one example of someone who reported a discovery quickly. This hugely important treasure was acquired by the British Museum and is on display in the exhibition.

"Buried Treasure" manages to emphasize the danger looting poses to the archaeological record while at the same time celebrate the role of the amateur in making important discoveries. As a showcase for the benefits of the responsible reporting of finds, it succeeds brilliantly.

Damian Robinson is British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bradford.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America