Skip to main content

Misunderstanding the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

The UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a key way for members of the public to report chance finds. As the PAS says:

Every year many thousands of archaeological objects are discovered by members of the public, mostly by metal-detector users, but also by people out walking, digging their gardens or whilst going about their everyday work.

The point of the scheme is not to record all coins (or finds) made by archaeologists but rather to report chance finds made by members of the public.

Dave Welsh --- once again --- convincingly displays his misunderstanding of PAS by claiming:

The argument that those who go clandestinely prospecting for coins with metal detectors disturb archaelogical sites has been convincingly refuted by statistics compiled by the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the UK, which demonstrate that only 2% of reported coin discoveries are made by archaeologists.

If one of the aims of PAS is

To advance knowledge of the history and archaeology of England and Wales by systematically recording archaeological objects found by the public

we would expect the PAS to be reporting relatively few finds by archaeologists. That is the nature of the scheme. (Please note: PAS covers England and Wales, not the whole of the UK - there is a difference.)

Finds may be made by the public in what Welsh calls "cultivated fields, pastures or wooded areas". But today's "cultivated fields, pastures or wooded areas" may have been yesterday's Iron Age farmstead, Roman villa, or Medieval village. The target areas for Welsh's "coin treasures" could be archaeological sites. The correlation could be significant.

It is about time that Welsh listened to his fellow coin collectors. And he could learn something from Paul Barford's sensible comments on the PAS both here and elsewhere.


"The argument that those who go clandestinely prospecting for coins with metal detectors disturb archaelogical sites has been convincingly refuted by statistics compiled by the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the UK, which demonstrate that only 2% of reported coin discoveries are made by archaeologists."

Regarding this statement, made by Dave Welsh, I have sneaking suspicion that he might have meant that only 2% of total coin finds in Britain (maybe not just exclusively that recorded in the PAS) was made by archaeologists. If this is the case, the figure may be accurate, but is obviously reflective of the fact that modern archaeologists dig in a scientific manner and move very slowly (in order to properly record contexts) in contrast to recreational metal detectorists - or even those motivated by profit - who are actively seaking metal objects with the aid of a mechanical device.

Whichever of these scenarios that Mr. Welsh meant in his above statement, it is clear his logic here is flawed. The statistic does not reflect any sense that the PAS significantly deters systematic looting to the degree that he and others have argued nor does it show that detectorists are digging in areas that are not associated with archaeological remains. Indeed, even since Roger Bland's lecture in Washington this summer, which is frequently touted by ACCG members, there have been reports of nighthawking and systematic use of illicit metal detecting in Britain despite the scheme.

It is curious that the PAS is touted so frequently by members of the coin dealer lobby in particular, and yet in my search of VCoins and my search through the latest Triton sale yielded not one speciment of ancient coin that purported to have been recorded in this scheme. Even if something is recorded in the PAS, its export from the country is typically forbidden. In fact, much of the fresh material on the coin market is supplied by Balkan countries (see, for example, "Why Coins Matter" Here it is certainly illegal, in virtually all instances, to export or 'excavate' without a permit, and yet many North American ancient coin dealers and collectors seem to have no qualms importing material from these sources. I think the simple fact of the matter is that the PAS, even if all discoveries could be sold and exported, could not sustain the increasing global (or perhaps even just the North American) demand for ancient coins. The PAS is an enlightened scheme which has done much good, and has recorded contexts that would be unknown otherwise, but it is not a complete solution or "cure-all" arrangement, especially when unscrupulous individuals are willing to trade in material that has not been properly excavated or documented and legally exported - this is where most of the fresh material on the market comes from.
Sebastian Heath said…
I hope you'll forgive me for starting with two longish quotes from Mr. Welsh's original post to the MSN-List.


"Moreover, it is clear from examining find reports for coin discoveries that the vast majority of reported discoveries have been made far away from any other indications of human activity, typically in cultivated fields, pastures or wooded areas. The correlation between locations of coin treasures sought by detectorists and archaeological sites os clearly insignificant."

which leads later to:

"First, it must be demonstrated that those who clandestinely go prospecting for ancient coins really are disturbing archaeological sites to an extent that requires remedial action..."

This repeats a common theme of those who look for loopholes to defend a return to a largely unregulated trade in ancient coins. The essential argument runs along the lines of: "if it's not from a site then archaeologists shouldn't care."

David, you catch this when you write, "today's 'cultivated fields, pastures or wooded areas' may have been yesterday's Iron Age farmstead, Roman villa, or Medieval village."

I would encourage archaeologists to make an even more vigorous reply. While ancient men and women lived in more or less nucleated settlements, they farmed and otherwise used the countryside extensively, by which I mean in a fashion that covered wide territories. Surface and immediately sub-surface finds of coins are plausibly evidence of such activity. Indeed, unless the argument is made that a coin made its own way to its find-spot, the discovery of a coin is almost certainly evidence of nearby past human activity. Certainly, post-depositional/post-loss processes, such as water driven movement, can change a coin's location from where it was dropped, but that doesn't detract from scattered objects being among our best evidence for extensive use of the country-side.

Welsh speaks of insignificant correlations. This discounts the substantial progress archaeologists have made in looking at just these correlations between "on-site" and "off-site" archaeology.

I understand that an extension of this logic is that the entire country-side of the ancient world - or any other area of interest, for that matter - is fair game for archaeological research and that archaeologists should take an interest in protecting all areas and all finds. Indeed, I would welcome Mr. Welsh coming to just this realization.
David Gill said…

You are right to stress the way that settlement is linked to the use of landscape. We both understand the benefits of intensive surveys and how surface finds can help to reconstruct the history of land use.

Best wishes

If I may, I would like to add to part of Sebastian's post and his examination of the common and unsubstantiated assertion, frequently made by some coin dealers, that most coins sold on the market come from fields devoid of archaeological contexts and associated architectural remains (as if one must have architecture to have archaeology).

Dave Welsh stated:
"Moreover, it is clear from examining find reports for coin discoveries that the vast majority of reported discoveries have been made far away from any other indications of human activity, typically in cultivated fields, pastures or wooded areas."

This is an unsubstantiated assertion and one wonders if Mr. Welsh really examined such reports before making this claim. First of all, the argument defies logic since coins ought to be found in areas of human activity or, at the very least, in close proximity to areas of human activity. Secondly, for individuals who would not otherwise know, it has been demonstrated that many archaeological sites are actively looted for ancient coins and also that large quantities of ancient coins can be found from various types of archaeological sites from all over the Empire, see: Additionally, this article examined some of the best sources for published finds of coins, such as Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland (FMRD), Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Österreich (FMRÖ), etc., and remarked that large numbers of coins came from known settlements and habitation areas.

Sebastian has already commented on the fact that coins coming from modern fields and farms do not necessarily have less archaeological significance, since these could be potentially significant archaeological sites or areas of ancient habitation. Additionally, coin hoards are not only found in modern fields (which may cover other archaeological remains), but are frequently found in archaeological sites and can compromise a significant percentage of coin finds from an archaeological site.

It has also occurred to me that the famous Reka Devnia hoard, one of the largest (if not the largest) ancient coin hoard ever recovered, contained c. 350 kg of silver Roman coins. This hoard was excavated in the remains of the ancient city of Marcianopolis and was associated with an architectural feature and other archaeological remains.
Paul Barford said…
Nathan Elkins writes:
> the famous Reka Devnia hoard,
> [...] was associated with an
> architectural feature and
> other archaeological remains<

As was the Shapwick hoard, one of the largest from Britain, and recorded by the very same PAS which Welsh attempts to (mis)use to support his theory of "where collected coins come from".

There are in fact many ancient hoards recorded as having been hidden in structures and settlements, and furthermore records of such finds go back to the literature of the antiquarian age when both archaeology and numismatics were in their infancy, as well as more recent published finds (like one I myself excavated in the baths basilica at Wroxeter). I am surprised a professional numismatist would try to generalise in such a manner.

Paul Barford

Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

Sardinian warrior from "old Swiss collection"

One of the Sardinian bronzes of a warrior was seized from an as yet unnamed Manahattan gallery. It appears to be the one that passed through the Royal-Athena Gallery: Art of the Ancient World 23 (2012) no. 71. The collecting history for that warrior suggests that it was acquired in 1990 from a private collection in Geneva.

Other clues suggested that the warrior has resided in a New York private collection.

The identity of the private collection in Geneva will no doubt be telling.

The warrior also features in this news story: Jennifer Peltz, "Looted statues, pottery returned to Italy after probe in NYC", ABC News May 25 2017.

Attic amphora handed back to Italians

The research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has led to the return of an Attic red-figured amphora, attributed to the Harrow painter, to Italy (Tom Mashberg, "Stolen Etruscan Vessel to Be Returned to Italy", New York Times March 16, 2017).

The amphora is known to have passed through the hands of Swiss-based dealer Gianfranco Becchina in 1993, and then through a New York gallery around 2000 (although its movements between those dates are as yet undisclosed).

During the ceremony, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the District Attorney stated:
“When looters overrun historic sites, mine sacred spaces for prized relics, and peddle stolen property for top dollar, they do so with the implicit endorsement of all those who knowingly trade in stolen antiquities” More research clearly needs to be conducted on how material handled by Becchina passed into the North American market and into the hands of private and public collectors.