The British public have discovered many hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects, and this month 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 our knowledge about the history of the British Isles, including the Middle Ages.
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. The item that helped cross this historic milestone of 1.5 million objects 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. Most objects that are unearthered 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.
“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,” says Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum. “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.”
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 and tokens.
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.
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 1.5 million 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.
“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,” adds Michael Lewis, Head of PAS and Treasure at the British Museum. “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.”
You can search the full PAS database at finds.org.uk
Top Image: Watlington Hoard. Silver hoard of jewellery, ingots and coins of Alfred and Ceolwulf II. © The Trustees of the British Museum