Where can I find buried treasure? The top 10 areas for unearthing finds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
From Roman coins to Saxon hoards - the UK’s rich history lends itself to discovering antiquities not seen for millennia
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From Julius Caesar’s Roman legions to Viking invaders, many major historic events have taken place on UK soil over the last few millennia.
And this UK soil - as well as the waters surrounding the British Isles - has become home to thousands of objects that these ancient empires left behind.
So, where are the best places in the UK to unearth buried treasure?
How is treasure defined in the UK?
There is a legal definition of treasure because there are rules governing what you can do with it if you find some (more on that below).
Gold and silver objects, groups of coins from the same finds that are over 300 years old, or prehistoric ‘base-metal assemblages’ are all classified as treasure under the Treasure Act 1996.
The phrase ‘base-metal assemblages’ covers things like brooches and rings.
Specifically, the Act says any metallic object which isn’t a coin, whose weight is made up of at least 10% precious metal (e.g. gold or silver) and is at least 300 years old when found counts as treasure.
If the object is from a prehistoric date, it’s considered treasure if any part of it contains precious metal.
Should you discover two or more coins from the same find that are at least 300 years old and contain 10% gold or silver (or at least 10 coins if they contain under 10%), these too would be treasure.
Coins are judged to have come from the same find if they’re:
- Part of a hoard that’s been deliberately hidden
- Found in smaller groups, e.g. were the contents of a purse that may have been dropped or lost;
- Clearly part of Votive (i.e religious) or ritual deposits.
If you find any other objects in any of the circumstances above, it is treasure regardless of what it’s made of.
In 2019, the most recent year for which we have comprehensive data, 34% of treasure finds came from the ‘post-Medieval’ period (i.e. anytime between the years 1500 and 1818).
That year, 26% of treasure was classified as Medieval, meaning it came from anytime between the end of Roman rule and the Tudor dynasty.
There were smaller numbers of Roman, Iron Age and Bronze Age discoveries.
What are the rules for finding buried treasure?
Defining what treasure is is important because there are specific rules for what you have to do if you think you’ve found treasure.
If you’re in England or Wales, you have to report treasure to your local coroner within 14 days of first finding it, or within 14 days of realising it might be treasure.
Should the object not meet the definition of treasure but you think it might be of cultural significance, you can report it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England or Cymru PAS in Wales.
Once you’ve reported treasure, you’ll be contacted by either a local official or a museum curator to discuss how and where you made your find.
They then write a report on the find and museums can express an interest in it if it could be treasure.
An inquest will then take place, which typically involves the finder of the treasure, as well as the occupier of the place it was found and the site’s landowner.
If a museum wants it, a body known as the Treasure Valuation Committee will ask an expert to value the find.
It may be that you’re eligible for a share of the valuation - alongside any landowners or tenants.
And if no one wants the treasure, you can keep it providing no other interested parties object.
In Northern Ireland, the process is similar to that of England and Wales, although you have to have a licence to do metal detecting.
In Scotland, the process is a little different as by law you must record the site of the find with a national grid reference and inform the devolved administration’s Treasure Trove Unit or your local authority’s archaeologist immediately.
Should you not report your finds, you could risk jail time.
In 2017, serving police officer David Cockle was jailed for 16 months for illegally trying to sell 10 coins he’d found.
These coins turned out to be part of the largest-ever Anglo-Saxon coin hoard found in England.
Where is the most buried treasure found?
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has released annual figures for buried treasure finds going up to 2020.
However, 2020’s data is deemed to be ‘provisional’ and so does not include a breakdown of what type of treasure has been found.
This data covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland - Scotland is not included in the figures as it has a separate system for declaring finds on Scottish turf.
It also includes finds which ultimately have not met the criteria for treasure - although in 2019, this accounted for less than 1% of recorded hauls.
Overall, 1,077 finds were recorded in 2020 with 1,055 of them being discovered in England.
Wales made up the other 22 treasure hauls, as Northern Ireland did not record any.
The overall figure marked a drop of more than 27% on 2019’s number of 1,303 treasure finds, which included 22,620 artefacts.
Based on data from between 2012 and 2020, these are the places where you’re most likely to find buried treasure:
- Norfolk - 1,021 finds
- Suffolk - 638
- Essex - 619
- Lincolnshire - 566
- Hampshire - 523
- Kent - 479
- North Yorkshire (including York) - 474
- Wiltshire (including Swindon) - 387
- Dorset - 362
- Oxfordshire - 324
Norfolk came out on top for finds in all but one of the nine years covered by the government data (in 2019 it came second, with Hampshire taking the top spot).
In 2020 alone 104 finds were recorded there - 33 more than in second-placed Hampshire.