Britain Sees Boom In Citizen-Discovered Artifacts

Some 90,000 archeological objects were reported across Britain in 2010. The British Museum in London says this is the largest increase in archaeological finds discovered by the public. Much of this bump is attributed to improvements to the museum's systems that help keep track of all the finds. Michele Norris speaks with Michael Lewis, the deputy head of portable antiquities and treasure for the British Museum. Lewis talks about how ordinary citizens are helping transform British archeology.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Ninety thousand one hundred forty-six, that's how many archeological discoveries were made in Britain last year by amateurs; in other words, by treasure hunters with metal detectors or by accident - people working in the garden or simply out for a stroll.

The number comes to us courtesy of the British Museum in London. It's a 36 percent increase over the year before, but we should be clear here. The museum says much of that bump is not because of an actual increase in the number of finds but because of improvements to the museum's system that keeps track of all of these.

For more, we're joined by Michael Lewis. He's the deputy head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure for the British Museum.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL LEWIS (Deputy Head, Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum): Hello there.

NORRIS: So, can you do me a favor and explain the system, something you call the Portable Antiquities Scheme or the PAS? How exactly does this work?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, in England, there's a legal obligation for people to report certain types of objects which are called treasure finds - in essence, gold and silver finds. The rest, there's no legal obligation for people to report. But the Portable Antiquities Scheme's established to encourage people to report them on a voluntary basis, so we can learn more about the past.

NORRIS: These finds must come with great stories. Can you share one with us?

Mr. LEWIS: Yes. I mean, they're really amazing, some of these finds. I mean, one of the kind of strangest ones that we had in the report that's just been published is a Roman knife handle which shows this erotic scene. I hope I can speak about this.

NORRIS: We'll be careful here as you go on.

Mr. LEWIS: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEWIS: I won't go in any detail, but basically, they - there's two men and a woman engaged in a sexual act with a decapitated head as well. And these objects...

NORRIS: Oh my.

Mr. LEWIS: I know. It's a bit strange, but these objects aren't that unusual. They do turn up.

NORRIS: That sounds unusual.

Mr. LEWIS: It is unusual for us, I guess, but it seems the Romans kind of liked knifeware and tableware, (unintelligible) these sorts of motifs on them, not sure why.

NORRIS: Where was that found?

Mr. LEWIS: That was found in Lincolnshire by a metal detectorist.

NORRIS: I understand that you had this campaign at one point called STOP, Stop Taking Our Past. Does this suggest that that campaign worked, that people are picking up their phone and calling you up?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, what that was is in the 1980s when metal detecting first became quite common, there was a - most European countries banned metal detecting. And indeed, many European countries now don't allow metal detecting at all. But in Britain, the government didn't take that view at all and allowed metal detecting to continue.

Archeologists, who were kind of enraged by what they saw as metal detectorists' doing, set up this campaign called Stop Taking Our Past, but it basically failed because it drew apart, really, even further archeologists and metal detectorists. And it wasn't really until the Portable Antiquities Scheme that those kind of relationships were built again.

NORRIS: And you must look at these archeological finds and wonder if only these objects could talk.

Mr. LEWIS: Exactly, yes. And I think the finders, as you find them, think that as well. I mean, obviously, when they pick up an object, they realize that they're the first person since - I don't know - the 15th century, you know, the Roman period or whenever to handle that find since it was lost or dropped or even purposely deposited. And so they feel a connection with those ancestors, if you like, who were living in this country, you know, many, many thousands of years before themselves.

NORRIS: Michael Lewis, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. LEWIS: Thank you.

Michael Lewis is the deputy head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure for the British Museum.

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