Friday, 27 July 2007

Pleasure from hidden treasure

In these scary days of hijackings, hostage-taking and international terrorism, the words metal detecting take on an altogether different and much more sinister meaning. What follows has nothing to do with the security measures to be found at airports and left luggage depots.

No, the metal detecting that interests me is the type that keeps grown men (and women) occupied for hours at the beach, on old rubbish dumps and forgotten pathways with little trowels and big hopes of finding something valuable that might otherwise be lost and gone forever.

Personally speaking, I've only ever used a metal detector once. I borrowed one from a neighbour and spent an unpleasant -- and ultimately unrewarding -- hour combing through the rubbish strewn across the back yard of my sister-in-law's semi.

She had lost her engagement ring and having turned the house upside down, she was at her wit's end. The only glimmer of hope was that the ring might have been swept into the dustbin. So we carried it into the yard and tipped it out. Sadly, the only bleeps we got from the metal detector were from tin cans and bits of silver paper.

The Business Manager (Mrs P) came home from the hairdresser the other day with a tale with an altogether happier ending. The coiffeuse's husband had been digging holes for a new garden fence, and in the course of his labours, he had unearthed a tiny blackened silver disc, which he assumed was a coin.

About the size of an old sixpence but so thin that you could bend it between thumb and forefinger, it was just about possible to discern some markings, lettering and possibly even a portrait head.

Intrigued to know whether indeed the disc was a coin, and more importantly, whether he should book his round the world cruise, the experts were called in. Thanks to today's digital technology, an image of it was sent to London specialist auctioneer Morton & Eden, who quickly responded. Sadly, the cruise would have to wait.

However, it was still a fascinating find. Principal James Morton said the coin was an English silver penny. It was difficult to date precisely because of the worn condition, so it was almost impossible to make out the distinguishing marks.

Nevertheless James Morton responded: "I think it is Edward I, which dates it to 1280-1300, and it was struck at the Durham Mint. I can tell this from the legend on the reverse which I think reads CIVI – {TAS} – DVN{E – {LME}."

The amazing thing was that according to James Morton, nice, clear examples of the coin are worth £40 or £50. The bad news was that because of it's condition, the value of this particular example was, maybe, a tenner.

James Morton added: "Chances are that it was a 'casual loss' and depending on the nature of your friend's garden, it might have been in 'imported topsoil'. However, it just might be a stray coin from a larger hoard buried nearby, so it might be worth having a go with a metal detector for an hour or two – you never know!"

Interestingly enough, another Morton & Eden client had had a similar experience, although his reward is likely to be far greater.

A detective constable in the police force, he had used his metal detecting skills to locate a gold coin dating from the 5th century AD which next month is expected to sell for £5,000 or more.

Morton & Eden Roman coin specialist Tom Eden identified the coin as a gold solidus of the Emperor Jovinus (AD 411-413). About the size of a modern 10 pence piece, the coin would probably have been dropped from the pocket of a wealthy Roman.

This is the first time a Jovinus solidus has been found in Britain, making the find both exciting and significant.

The coin dates from the period when the empire was in turmoil and the Romans were leaving Britain. Rome had been sacked, Spain and Britain had seceded under their own rulers and the Vandals were overrunning Northern Africa.

Jovinus was of noble Gallic decent and was proclaimed emperor by a barbarian coalition who seized Gaul (now France and Germany) during the reign of Honorius.

Jovinus was helped in part by Athaulf, king of the Visigoths but when Jovinus promoted his brother Sebastian to the rank of Augustus, Athaulf turned against him and decimated his forces.

The severed heads of Jovinus, Sebastian and a third brother, Sallust, were delivered to Honorius in Ravenna, Italy, on August 30, AD 413.

The police officer found the coin at a secret location in Kent. It was just four or five inches below the surface on a farm track that had been identified from ancient records he had studied in the reference section at his local library.

Being an upholder of the law, the officer had handled his find by the book: it was registered at Maidstone County Hall and with Kent Museums Service and the British Museum (which already has an example of the coin) were also alerted.

And just to close the circle and keep everyone happy, the proceeds of the sale will be divided between the finder and the landowner.

Truth is, metal detecting is a hobby not to be taken up lightly. There are rules – both written and unwritten – and etiquette matters.

Being a single find, the Jovinus solidus is not subject to the laws of Treasure, leaving the finder free to sell it.

But what is the definition of treasure?

According to the Treasure Act of 1996, all finds of coins (two or more) from the same find spot, count as treasure, provided they are at least 300 years old when found.

If they contain less than 10 per cent gold or silver, there must be at least 10 of them to be regarded as treasure.

Where objects are concerned, all prehistoric base-metal objects from the same find (where there are two or more) count as treasure, as do all finds, even single finds, if they are at least 300 years old and contain 10 per cent or more gold or silver.

The same goes for so-called associated finds – that is any object, whatever it is made of, found in the same place as, or had previously been together with, another object that is treasure.

So what should you do if you strike lucky and find something that may be regarded as treasure?

According to statute, you must report all finds of treasure to a coroner for the district in which they are found, either within 14 days after the day on which you made the discovery or within 14 days after the day on which you realised the find might be treasure.

If the coroner’s inquest rules that the find is indeed treasure, the coroner arranges for a valuation to be made by a committee of experts and the find is offered to the national museum or local museums at the agreed valuation.

The lucky finder is rewarded with the full valuation, although this might be shared with the landowner, depending on circumstances.

Be a good metal detectorist

Metal detectorists are expected to follow a strict code of ethics, as follows:

* Respect private and public property and all historical and archaeological sites and do no metal detecting on these lands without proper permission.
* Keep informed on and obey all laws, regulations and rules governing public and private land.
* Aid law enforcement officials whenever possible.
* Cause no wilful damage to property of any kind, including fence, signs and buildings and always fill holes.
* Leave no litter.
* Using good outdoor manners and add to the good public image of all people engaged in the field of metal detection.

Pictures show from top:
A group of English medieval silver coins of a type that have been found in excavations in the UK

The Edward I silver penny dug up in a Cheshire garden. With a little imagination, you can just about make up the outline of a crowned head
The lettering is decipherable enough for an expert to deduce the silver penny came from the Durham mint

The gold Juvinus solidus – found just below the surface of an ancient farm track and expected to sell for more than £5,000 next month

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