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On 1st November 2001 something significant happened in the history of British heritage protection policy. Culture Secretary Baroness Blackstone announced that despite the requirements of the Valletta Convention Britain would not be introducing tighter controls on amateur archaeology groups. Although surprising, the decision not to comply with the Convention hasn’t been a big problem – major damage and rogue excavations by local amateur archaeology groups aren’t exactly rife, few amateur archaeologists are the sort to act in that way.

Still, that’s not to say the reason behind the decision wasn’t awful – and all too visible. A new organisation called the Portable Antiquities Scheme had just been set up based on the idea that metal detectorists would voluntarily report what they found and act in a less damaging fashion. Clearly it would have been an unspeakable juxtaposition if the government had insisted that highly respectable and meritorious amateur archaeologists must be licensed while leaving ten thousand artefact hunters feral and free to do exactly what they wanted. Hence Valletta was ignored and amateur archaeologists weren’t regulated, ensuring no-one could say there was any inconsistency with the free-for-all that had been allowed to remain out in the fields. Anyone with £99 to buy a Tesco’s detector and the social skills to tell a farmer he’s working for PAS is free to remove history from every single non-scheduled archaeological site in the country without limit and without a single word.

And Britain’s metal detectorists have certainly made the most of Britain’s aberrant position. In the 20 years that followed they have helped themselves to many millions of artefacts most of which they didn’t report and which have been totally lost to science. The government got it horribly wrong and this simple observation shows it’s true: there’s currently a Heritage Crime initiative being run on the basis that heritage crime is “any crime that harms the value of England’s heritage assets to this and future generations”. In any other country the taking of those artefacts without reporting them and the consequent “harm to the value of the nation’s heritage assets” would be included in the definition of “heritage crime” without a second thought. Here, it’s “heritage heroism”.

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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting
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