- Who owns an archaeological find made by a member of the public?
- Is it legal to sell archaeological finds?
Here’s how things work in Sweden, which to my knowledge has the world’s strongest legal protection for sites and finds.
The first thing to note is that all sites known to the National Heritage Board are protected. This protection isn’t tiered like in England: to explain to you Brits, let’s say that a Swedish site automatically becomes “Scheduled” the moment the Board receives information about its whereabouts. And a “site” can be anything from a single piece of knapped stone found in a field to a Medieval ruin.
To shock you Anglophones further, let me also emphasise that the landowner has very few rights with regard to the sites on his land. They sit on his property, but they are themselves in many ways property of the state. He can’t dig them, he doesn’t own any finds from them, he is forbidden to change his current agricultural methods on the sites for something more destructive. The important relationship when a find is made by a member of the public is between the authorities and the finder, not the landowner. Sweden has no trespassing laws.
A lover of archaeology and history will of course report anything she finds to the local museum simply for its information value, regardless of the legal situation. But let’s look at the bare bones of the rules. Someone walks across a ploughed field or along the edge of a gravel pit and finds something old. What is required of them?
- If it’s more than one object from one spot, then, regardless of what the finds are made of, the finder is obliged to report them and become eligible for a state finder’s reward.
- If it’s a single object, then the finder is obliged to report the find and become eligible for a state finder’s reward only if the find is at least partly made of precious metals or copper alloy.
- The state finder’s reward is at least the metal value plus one eighth, usually far more when collectible coins and jewellery are involved. Reporting a hoard find in Sweden is thus a pretty good business deal compared to selling it illicitly.
- This system works because metal detecting is only allowed with a special short-term permit that requires that the detectorist waives any right to remuneration.
If I find a single stone axe or iron spear head when I cross a ploughed field, then I am its owner and can do with it as I please. Sell it, donate it to a museum, carve it into the likeness of P.Z. Myers or blow it up with dynamite. What usually happens is in fact that people take their finds home and put them on the mantlepiece. Swedish farmers tend to have small collections of antiquities from their land, apparently as part of a constructed identity as custodians of that land.
If I inherit a collection of, say, flint débitage or heavy Migration Period gold jewellery from my grandfather, and no information about the find circumstances is publicly available, then I am its owner. Exactly this happened with a Viking Period silver hoard in Scania in the 1980s: it was found among the belongings of a deceased gentleman, and the heirs challenged the authorities to prove that the hoard had not been handed down from father to son in the family for 900 years…
I never buy archaeological finds, even to donate, as I don’t want to contribute to a market demand. But I often ask farmers and antiques dealers if they have anything to show me, and given permission I take photographs and make descriptions for the museum archives. Looking at farm collections is actually the quickest way to get new Stone and Bronze Age data from an area. All you have to do, and this can be tricky, is convince people that you aren’t going to take their stuff or report them to the police or sumfing. The dealers tell me that the Swedish urban collector of archaeological finds is pretty much extinct, except for coin collectors, who are a dying breed. Germans, however, are happy to pay good prices for Swedish finds.
Identifying archaeological finds isn’t easy for the layperson. There are great stories about people using Migration Period neck rings to repair mopeds or close barnyard gates. I’m always happy to look at pictures of finds, of course assuming that it’s not about getting an “expert opinion” to crank up the price of something you plan to sell. So, Dear Reader, if you find something funny, send me a pic and we’ll talk about it on the blog.
The stone axe above is half a thin-butted one from the Early Neolithic, found during a rescue excavation in 1993 in Österhaninge parish south of Stockholm. I lifted the photograph by Jackie Taffinder from the excellent on-line catalogue of the Museum of National Antiquities, no 33747.
[More blog entries about archaeology, law, Sweden; arkeologi juridik.]