Charlotte Razay
Posted on 21 May 2020

Learning the Law: Metal Detecting in the spotlight

Metal detecting is something that anyone is lawfully entitled to do. However, you cannot trespass to do it.

If land is tenanted, both the tenant's and, in most circumstances, the landlord's consent must be obtained and vice versa if it is the land owner wanting to grant someone permission to metal detect.

That said there are limits to what you can do. Best practice is to ensure that the Portable Antiquities Scheme ("PAS") Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales (2017) ("Code of Practice") is followed. If not, those metal detecting could find themselves unknowingly committing a criminal offence.

Ancient Monument and Archaeological Areas Act 1979

The Secretary of State has the power to designate sites of national importance. The Ancient Monument and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 provides the following criminal offences in connection with metal detecting:-

  • It is a criminal offence to destroy or damage a scheduled monument "knowing that it is a protected monument" and "intending to destroy or damage the monument or being reckless as to whether the monument would be destroyed or damaged" (section 28).
  • It is a criminal offence to use a metal detector on a protected place without the written consent from Historic England or Cadw Wales and to remove an object located by the use of a metal detector in a protected place (section 42). A "protected place" is either a "scheduled monument" or an "area of archaeological importance".
  • It is also a criminal offence to carry out unauthorised works to a scheduled monument without the prior consent of the Secretary of State (section 2).

Can you metal detect on Countryside Stewardship land?

Metal detecting is not permitted on scheduled monuments, SSSIs, and known archaeological sites on CS agreement land. On all other land in a CS agreement, landowners must make sure that metal detecting does not conflict with the requirements of the CS agreement. If metal detecting is allowed the Code must be followed.

Other offences from illegal searching ('nighthawking')

  • Trespass – metal detecting on land without the landowner/occupier's consent (this is a civil offence, unless trespass is on a protected site or criminal damage is caused).
  • Theft – this is a criminal offence by virtue of the Theft Act 1968 – removing objects from land without the land owner/occupier's permission.
  • Dealing in Cultural (Offences) Act 2003 – it is a criminal offence to deal dishonestly in objects of historical, architectural or archaeological interest if it has been "tainted" by being excavated or removed from sites.

Treasure Act 1996 - What is treasure?

Any object, other than a coin, which is made up of at least 10% precious metal (gold or silver), that is at least 300 years old when found. The exceptions to the above (which are still treasure) are where:-

  • two or more metallic objects of prehistoric date are found in the same find (i.e. at the same time) then they will still be deemed treasure irrespective of their metal content; .
  • two or more gold coins are found in the same find;
  • 10 or more gold coins are found in the same find but they contain less than 10% precious metal; and
  • any object would previously have been a treasure trove.

Who owns treasure?

Treasure vests in the Crown, unless it is subject to someone who can establish a prior interest.

Must "treasure" be reported?

Yes. A finding of treasure must be reported to the local coroner within 14 days. Failure to report can lead to a fine and/or imprisonment.

What if something other than treasure is found?

There is no legal obligation to report finds unless they are human remains, which must be reported to the police. Best practice is to report all finds to PAS Finds Liaison Officers.