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What Happens in the Real World if You Find a Buried Treasure?

Ever wonder what happens if you actually found a buried treasure or some sort of National Treasure-esk haul of ancient loot? Well, wonder no more.

To begin with, as ever in just about everything, the answer to that is complicated. The bottom line is that most countries have laws that regulate what has to be done when something precious is found. And disappointingly, usually, it has to be given to an authority for the sake of scientific research. As to whether you’ll get paid for it, well, we’ll get into that.

First, when objects like coins, jewelry or other objects made of precious metal are found and they are so old that no owner can be attributed to them, they are classed as a treasure trove. This is the legal term deriving from Anglo-Norman tresor trové which means ‘found treasure’. It is very close to the modern French trésor trouvé, which means … exactly the same: ‘found treasure’.

As mentioned, most countries have laws governing the finding of such “found treasure”.

As you might infer from the fact that there are set laws on the books pretty much in every nation of the world concerning treasure troves, this sort of thing actually isn’t totally uncommon, owing to the fact that burying treasure was once a relatively common thing. Such “treasures” are called hoards in archæology and as banks were not available to protect treasured items in ancient times, burying them to later unearth them was an easy solution.

Time periods with a high occurence of hoards can be interpreted as indicating times of unrest. If the person who buried the treasure does not come back to unbury it for various reasons like forgetting where it was, hurriedly having to relocate to another area or, you know, death by Viking or the sort, the hoard remains to be found by a lucky person.

Buried treasure could also be offerings to gods. Especially in hard to access places, this is a likely interpretation, as it would indicate no intention to retrieve the treasure.

Apart from hoards, burials are another source of artifacts such as coins, jewelry et cetera. Burial rites vary a lot across time and place. In many cultures it was customary to bury quite valuable objects with the deceased, for example ornate weapons or jewelry. Of course, this has attracted looters in ancient times as well as today.

So burials could contain valuable things, but really any place where humans did, well, anything, artifacts can potentially be found, like settlements, of course, or battlefields.

All these treasures from hoards, burials and other sources are lying there, waiting to be found.

Some have made it their hobby to search for these treasures with a metal detector, though interestingly this is not legal everywhere. But a metal detector is not always needed to unearth treasures. Sometimes objects are unearthed without anyone digging for it, be it by natural processes like freezing or erosion, but sometimes because of ploughing.

This is why walking across ploughed fields in a systematic fashion is a common method for looking for archeological digging sites. Objects found during these field surveys are precisely mapped and identified. And don’t expect anything fancy. Most of the time, it’s tessels from pots, pieces of badly corroded metal and other rather unspectacular seeming objects. Yet through the precise mapping and identification of objects, archæological sites can be identified, which can later be dug out by archæologists.

So finding treasures, while rare, is not unheard of. As noted, it happens often enough that regulating it was deemed necessary. And as we have seen, the practice of burying things for whatever reason means that there are indeed things to be found.

Found treasures were already regulated in Roman Law, which is the foundation of many modern legal systems. In Roman Law, found treasures could be kept if found on one’s own land. If found on another person’s land, the treasure had to be shared between land owner and finder.

This might explain the behaviour of the man in Jesus’ parable of the hidden treasure:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.[1]

The man didn’t want to share the treasure with the owner of the field, so he hid his discovery and bought the field to be the sole beneficiary of the treasure.

In later times in Europe, found treasures would usually go to the owner of the land. In Europe’s feudal system, this meant either the monarch or the nobility who own the land, that is the landlord.

Nowadays, laws vary greatly. In the USA, the finder of a treasure has a good claim to it, only the original owner has a better claim. But in reality, it can get very very complicated with many parties involved with conflicting claims.[2] In the US legal system, nothing is ever easy. Certain states use old English common law which includes the treasure trove law. But the application of the English treasure trove law is piecemeal and conflicting.

Another applicable law is that for ‘mislaid’ items. This law has the aim to bring together a person or their descendant with their lost property. However, this law is not really suited for archæological artifacts as they are so old that making a connection between a person hundreds of years ago to the present landowner is usually a bit of a stretch.[3]

In any case, as the Archæology magazine explains, law in the United States has evolved towards granting the landowner the right to found objects on their property to the detriment of the finder:

“By rejecting treasure trove and similar finder’s rationales, those courts have fostered legal policies that discourage waton trespass to real property, and give protection to a landowner’s possessory claims to any artifacts that have been so embedded in the land as to become part of it. Rejection of the rules that reward finders at the expense of landowners also strengthens anti-looting provisions, and discourages casual, but potentially destructive unplanned searches. Indeed, removal of artifacts from the soil is now recognized in the majority of states either as illegal severance of chattels, trespass, or theft.[4]

In the United Kingdom, treasure troves belong to the crown, but surprisingly, finders are treated very well compared to in other countries. In the United Kingdom, with the exception of Scotland, someone who finds a treasure has to bring it to the attention of the local coroner. Yes, the same person investigating deaths. They will then decide if the find is indeed deemed a treasure. Then, the market value of the find will be determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee, a governmental institution. Museums can then buy the item. They will pay a reward to the finder that can not exceed the set market value. If no museum wants to purchase the treasure, the finder may keep it and do as they please with it. In other words, museums get a preemptive right to purchase a treasure.

The market value is above the amount an antique dealer would pay. As the antique dealer wants to resell items with a margin of profit at market value, they will pay an amount smaller than the market value. Therefore, selling an item directly at market value to a museum can potentially be more profitable for the finder, who skips the middle man and their profit margin.

Compared to other countries, it is a very good arrangement for finders. However, failure to submit found treasure will earn heavy penalties. For example, in 2019, two men were sentenced to ten and eight-and-a-half years of jail time respectively for not having reported a find from the Viking age they made in 2015 with metal detectors. Most of the treasure was lost, as the finders sold off many of the coins on the private market.[5]

The English law here is not applicable to Scotland. That said, treasures found in Scotland are also the property of the crown. Nevertheless, the process of what happens when someone finds a treasure is not dissimilar to what happens in the rest of the UK: The find gets assessed by an agency called the Treasure Trove Unit at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. They assess the find and send a report to the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer, a governmental office, in which they claim the crown’s right to treasure trove or bona vacantia. The latter is applicable to abandoned goods. The treasure then gets offered to museums. If they are interested in acquiring a treasure, they pay a reward to the finder.[6]

A notable difference to the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom, is that in Scotland, treasure trove law not only applies to coins and other objects made of precious metals. All kinds of artifacts can be deemed treasure in Scottish law.

Moving on to Germany, they have laws called “Schatzregal” that regulate what to do with treasure. In this case, all kinds of objects can be seen as treasures: fossils, pottery tessels and of course coins, jewelry etc. It generally only applies to objects of scientific value. Every federal state has their own law that also regulates if a finder gets remuneration. Even though every state has their own law, contrasting with many other places, the gist is this: The state owns all treasures and hardly any state will pay a reward for objects. Bavaria is the odd one in the bunch and has no law regarding treasure troves at all.

Now you may ask, why is the state so precious about owning these treasures? Why can’t finders just do what they want with what they find?

The answer is that there is a conflict of interest at play: the interests of finders in remuneration clash with a societal interest in research.

Regulating what to do when artifacts are found is deemed as a necessity, because found objects could be of great scientific value.

A problem arises when amateur treasure hunters just dig up archæological sites, armed with metal detectors to find valuable artifacts like golden brooches or coins. The motives can be enrichment through the sale of artifacts or the thrill of finding a piece of history. This activity is highly damaging to archæological sites to the point of making the sites worthless for research.

To exemplify the problem, in Germany some ancient Celtic cities (called Oppida) have not been excavated by archæologists yet. As archæological technology is constantly evolving, some sites or sections of sites are deliberately kept untouched to leave something to future archæologists to do research on with new methods. This is because once a site is excavated, some of the information is irreparably lost. It is a destructive and irreversible process. After all, when a hole is dug, it is impossible to put the excavated earth back into the hole in the exact way it was found. This is why archæological digging involves painstakingly precise documention of all the findings and processes down to the very colour of different layers of dirt.

Another reason that known sites have not been dug out yet is also down to simple time and funding constraints.

Treasure hunters with metal detectors loot those places of their metal items. Archæologist Müller-Karpe says that one of the Oppida in Hessia has been robbed of an estimated 50,000 metal items, leaving the site virtually metal free.[7]

Looting not only precludes scientific research on the objects themselves, the looting also causes disturbance in the soil scrambling the traces that are still present.

Furthermore, looters will often falsify the origin of artifacts to make a sale appear legal. This is the case in Germany where treasure troves belong to the state in most federal states, but not Bavaria. Thus, objects are sold as originating from Bavaria on online selling platforms to make them appear like legal finds. Of course, obfuscating the true origin in this manner reduces its scientific value even more.

The artifacts also lose scientific value by being extracted from the soil without proper archæological documentation. Not only are the sites damaged, the artifacts themselves also lose some of their worth for science. Extracted from their context, in which layer of the earth they were found, the objects that could be found next to it, the exact positioning etc. All of this information is important to an archæologist.

The problem of the looting of archæological sites has become so prominent, that ongoing archæological digs are often kept as secret as possible and sometimes guarded to prevent looters using the opportunity to go snitch some stuff under cover of darkness from an already dug up site.

As you can see, it is a difficult problem where the interests of land owners, finders and the scientific community clash. Given the complication and many nations and states in the world, needless to say there is hardly a consensus from place to place in the law. That said, should you happen to find a buried treasure, the best place to find out the exact local law for free is probably your nearest public museum, whose officials often know the skinny on procedures and rules in the area.

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