If you’re metal detecting and find something “old”, can you keep it? Do you need to report it? Who do you report it to? There are some key guidelines that detectorists should be familiar with in case they unearth something classified as an “antiquity.”
Antiquities imprecisely refer to objects like coins, statues, or buildings of ancient times typically before the Middle Ages. This matters to metal detectorists because some objects we find could be antiquities. Here are the main points we should be familiar with regarding antiquities and artifacts.
The term is used to further define the objects. You may hear of Roman Antiquities, Egyptian Antiquities, Christie’s Antiquities, or some other classification. As metal detectorists, we should care because some antiquities, as well as artifacts (described below), cannot be kept and must be reported. You need to understand that there are penalties for violating the Antiquities Act. There is also a related law called the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. These laws serve to protect history and make it illegal to metal detect on federal land.
Please note that I am not a legal expert and cannot provide an interpretation of the law. I am providing this information for educational purposes as it may relate to the hobby of metal detecting. If you need detailed interpretation please consult an attorney.
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Antiquities Act of 1906
According to the National Park Services website, a this was the first United States law written for the general protection of generic cultural or natural resources. It established the first national historic preservation policy for the United States, including “…historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States…”
We can see the connection to metal detecting because this limits “…the examination of ruins, the excavation of archaeological sites, or the gathering of objects of antiquity…” to be carried out only after a permit has been issued by the Secretary of the responsible department and only to institutions” These institutions need to be “properly qualified to conduct such examinations, excavations, or gatherings…”
The Antiquities Act certainly helped with professional archeological investigations, but time showed it didn’t have an impact on criminal activity at archeological sites. In the 1970s, archeologists and those keenly interested in historical preservation pressed Congress to strengthen the protection of these resources.
This led not to an amendment of the Antiquities Act of 1906, but a new law entitled the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.
Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (and amendments)
According to the US Forest Service websiteb, this Act sets the law regarding excavation, removal, and disposition of archaeological sites/collections on Federal and Indian lands in the United States. The goal is to ensure protection, for both present and future benefit to Americans, of these resources which are considered irreplaceable heritage.
In December 2014, Congress created a new title within the United States Code (Title 54) for National Park Service-related laws. More detail can be found at the Office of Law Revision websitec.
The Impact of Law on Metal Detecting
How does the intent and meaning of these laws impact us as hobby detectorists?
By way of example, this is clearly spelled out in the National Park Service website for Ft Smith, Arkansas/Oklahoma under the heading “Metal Detectors: Don’t Dig Here”.
- Federal law prohibits the possession and use of metal detectors on federal property
- Metal detecting is prohibited in National Parks
- Federal law also prohibits relic hunting, digging for artifacts, and removing artifacts or historical objects
- These acts are illegal and can lead to confiscation of equipment, arrest, and prosecution as a felony under federal law
More generally, the NPS FAQ paged says this about metal detecting:
I own a metal detector. Can I bring it to the park to search for coins in the sand?
No. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 36) prohibits “possessing or using a mineral detector, magnetometer, side scan sonar, other metal detecting device, or subbottom profiler.” [Section 2.1(7)]
What if I find something potentially historical?
You may find something on private property, a public beach, schoolyard, etc. What happens then?
The US and Antiquities
- The Society for American Archaeology summarizes it this way:
- US laws regarding federal and state lands protect archaeological sites
- These laws don’t differentiate between surface collecting and digging for artifacts. Removing artifacts from state and federal lands is illegal.
- US laws pertaining to private lands do differentiate between surface collecting (picking up objects laying on top of the ground) and ground-disturbing activities (digging for artifacts)
- It is legal to collect artifacts from private property if you have written permission from the landowner
- It is not legal to disturb human skeletal remains or burials, also unlawful to “receive, keep, own, or dispose of any human body part (including bones), knowing it to have been removed from a grave unlawfully”
- States – If in doubt, contact your State Historic Preservation Officer – they are appointed officials in each of 59 states, territories and the District of Columbia. You can find them on this map.
- US laws regarding federal and state lands protect archaeological sites
So, what is an “artifact”?
When the language includes the word “artifact” you have to wonder what that means.
Basically, an artifact is something left by a human being of cultural or historic interest
However, you also have to consider the aspect of “age.” In an email conversation with the Society for American Archaeology about this topic, I learned that laws usually include some reference to age in their definition of “historic,” but not always.
For example, some federal and state laws use 100 years like the Archaeological Resources Protection Act mentioned above. Others say 50 years, so it depends on the specific property and the state as to which definition applies, and there’s no single definition across all of the state and federal laws.
To make it more complicated, some laws include exceptions for different types of artifacts.
So what are you to do as a metal detectorist?
Because of the variables, it’s difficult to find any blanket legal statements or definitions about artifacts when so much depends on location.
The best place we hobbyists can start is with the property owner (private or city/state/federal/tribal agency) where we’re interested in detecting or have stumbled upon something.
In concert with that, if you’re in the United States, get in touch with your State Historic Preservation Officer or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and your State Archaeologist.
Being able to talk to a person and ask polite and specific questions about your discovery or interest in detecting a certain location really helps uncover possible regulations and permitting processes that apply. This also helps to build a healthy bridge between the hobby and officials.
Europe and Antiquities
Metal detecting in Europe is a little different than in the US, particularly because of the longer historical timeframe within which things were lost over time (and are now considered antiquities.). Different countries and subregions have varying rules or laws in place.
Generally, anything found that could be an antiquity or treasure needs to be reported. If not done, there are fines and even prison time involved. Once reported, the detectorist may get a fair market value in exchange for the item.
This is not always the case, and it depends on the country. Some countries have gone so far as to outlaw metal detecting.
Recently there was a report of a medieval ring being unearthed in Cheshire which has been declared as “treasure trove.” The interesting details around this include the gold finger ring being found while searching with landowner permission. With the find reported, the “finds liaison officer” contacted the British Museum. The conclusion was “The finding does consist of treasure as it comprises more than 10 percent precious metal and is over 300 years old.” You can see the original news article here.
Populated regions could also determine how easy it might be to stumble on an item of antiquity. Western Europe is more populated which could make it harder to find a place to detect, while eastern Europe is relatively more open. Northeastern sites also have a more recent historical timeframe than southeastern sites.
Like in the US, and even more so because of stiff penalties, detectorists in Europe should do some research on the latest laws and prohibitions. This website is a good place to start, which states “In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all finders of gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996.”
In any case, think a bit more like an archaeologist than a hobby detectorist. The rift between the two worlds grows every year when history is challenged and destroyed. Shining a cooperative and positive light on the hobby is a good thing to achieve.
Researching: Besides the website I linked to above, there are also a number of good books to guide you such as this European Metal Detecting Guide.
Australia and Antiquities
Metal detecting in Australia is legal but in most states or locations, you need either a “Fossicking License” or “Miner’s Right.” National Parks are off-limits unless they’re covered by your fossicking license.
(Fossicking – rummaging or searching around, especially for a possible profit)
Australia’s National Parks and Wildlife Regulation of 2009 prohibits destructive activities such as digging, taking away material like sand and soil without permission.
Once you get started, there is still the question of what you can keep in terms of antiquities and artifacts.
Indigenous heritage can be protected under state or territory heritage laws to varying degrees. Usually, state and territory laws automatically protect various types of areas or objects, while enabling developers to apply for a permit or certificate to allow them to proceed with activities that might affect Indigenous heritage.
Underwater Australian artifacts
Australia’s Underwater Heritage Act contains the framework of their Historic Shipwrecks Act but also lends protection to all of Australia’s underwater cultural heritage.
If you’re metal detecting under the sea in Australia, keep in mind that shipwrecks and artifacts that have been underwater for 75 years are protected, as well as submerged aircraft. Those underwater less than 75 years can also be declared protected based on their significance.
This protection continues after removal from the water.
Did you know? Australia is also well-known for finding gold with metal detectors. For a good rundown of Australian metal detecting, take a look here.
BONUS: Where can you metal detect outside the US?
Location, location, location
I’ve poked around the internet to research this and there is a good list on this website. Remember to check for current information as websites can’t always stay updated as laws and rules change.