A REVIEW of Scotland’s Treasure Trove system has been welcomed by a leading archaeologist who has warned there could be a “cultural catastrophe” unless it is better resourced.

Professor Ian Ralston told the Sunday National that treasures may already have been lost because of pressures on the system, particularly since the rise in popularity of metal detecting.

Speaking after the launch of a public consultation on the way buried treasure is handled, he said it was potentially telling that “hundreds of thousands” of finds were being reported in England while far fewer were being recorded in Scotland.

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“Literally millions of objects are being found in England and reported whereas in Scotland, although the numbers have gone up, it is still tiny in comparison,” he said. “It must happen fairly frequently that archaeological objects are found and not reported – it’s definitely a ‘known unknown’.”

While the law related to buried treasure was updated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1996, the system in Scotland still operates under Scottish common law principles first applied more than 200 years ago. These rule that any finds can be claimed as the property of the Crown and must be reported so that they can be made available to museums for a tax-free, ex gratia payment.

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There have been periodic reviews of the system but the last was 20 years ago when Professor Ralston was chair of the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel.

It had earlier been suggested that Scotland should follow England in employing Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) based around the country to make contact with metal detectorist clubs and communities but a pilot project wasn’t taken forward.

Finds are still dealt with by a centralised system based in Edinburgh which Professor Ralston argued made it less likely that people would report them even though the last review made plain they should be allocated to local museums if they could look after them.

“There is still a feeling that they will disappear to Edinburgh and that is because in part the system is very centralised,” he said. “The people who work the Treasure Trove system basically all work in Edinburgh whereas the FLO scheme has about 40 archaeologists spread around England, Wales and Northern Ireland and they regularly go to metal-detecting rallies, meet groups in pubs and identify objects for people in their areas.

“As a result of this and other differences, far more is found south of the Border with the English system than is found in Scotland with the Scottish system so I think it is very likely to be the case that objects have been lost or, if not lost, then never reported. They maybe haven’t been lost but are sitting in someone’s house and not really recognised for what they are.”

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Professor Ralston said it was plain that one of the reasons for the current review was the Galloway hoard, one of the most significant Viking hoards ever found in Scotland and currently held in the National Museum of Scotland.

“A cultural catastrophe would happen in my opinion if in the same year in Scotland you got two or three Galloway hoards because there would not be the financial resources or expertise to be able to handle that amount of stuff quickly,” he said.

“They might not be as big as the Galloway hoard but three substantial finds could well be made in a single year and would put the system as it is under considerable pressure.”

Dr Stuart Allan, chair of the Treasure Trove Review, said the aim was to ensure that the recording and preservation of archaeological finds would continue to provide a rich cultural record for Scotland.

“We have a system that is not voluntary,” he said. “If you find something in the ground that is an archaeological object, you have a duty to report it to the Treasure Trove Unit. But the system relies on collaboration and confidence, so we want to see a flourishing treasure trove system for the next 10 or 20 years where we have a culture of co-operation between everyone involved, working together.”

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He added: “This is an opportunity to take a step back, look at the whole thing and ask for people’s views from as wide a constituency as possible, and see what proposals we can develop as to how the system can be sustained and improved.”

In Scotland, the Treasure Trove Unit and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel, on behalf of the King’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (KLTR), decide whether an object should be claimed by the Crown and recommends a reward to the finder, to be paid by the museum which bids to house the find.

KLTR John Logue said: “The role of Treasure Trove is to ensure that objects of cultural significance from Scotland’s past are protected for public benefit and preserved in museums across the country.

“We want to ensure that artefacts found in Scotland continue to provide maximum benefit to the public in understanding the significance of Scotland’s archaeological heritage.

“I would urge all those who have an interest in the future of the Treasure Trove system to fully engage with the public consultation.”

The consultation ends on May 13.