This article appeared in the Winter 1978 (Issue #54) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Landowners, Finds and Archaeologists.
It is quite clear to all responsible archaeologists that landowners, as distinct from tenants, have the legal title to all objects found on their land. Indeed archaeologists have frequently accused treasure hunters of 'stealing' valuable objects from public and private land without the owner's knowledge or consent. Hence any archaeologist wishing to excavate must clearly seek the consent of the landowner and agree to abide by any conditions he may impose. This naturally includes the acknowledgement that any finds are the property of the landowner, though it must always be hoped that they will be made available for publication and eventually placed, as a gift or loan, in a totally secure and adequately insured museum.
It was therefore something of a disaster for Kent archaeologists, just after the APCM Appeal into the major chalk quarrying proposal near Dartford, when the local Kentish Times carried repeated stories of a major clash over the ownership of a fine Anglo-Saxon glass bowl (KAR 53 (1978) page 60). This had been dug up by the local group (in spite of an agreement to the contrary which they had with government, county and other local archaeologists) on land owned by the Dartford and Gravesham District Hospital. The discovery had been deliberately kept secret until it was produced as a publicity-stunt in the middle of the Appeal proceedings many weeks after its actual discovery.
The headlines included "Dark Age Bowl: Ownership Rift" and later "New Row over Saxon Burial Bowl".
The sad story ran for five weeks in the Kentish Times with the District Health Administrator reported as saying that he had asked for a receipt from the finders, but had not even had the courtesy of a reply. The Dartford Group was reported as saying that they had an agreement which gave them possession of anything they found. The hospital was then reported as saying that "this talk of an agreement is a bit of a fast one".
Whatever the precise details, Kent archaeology has been very badly served by
this damaging publicity. Clearly, the finders should immediately have admitted
ownership of this priceless object. Only if the owners had been a shady group of
treasure-hunters intent upon smashing the object to pieces would there have been a
tiny moral right to challenge ownership. This was very far from the case here. The
landowners were a most helpful hospital authority who had willingly allowed excavation and readily consented to the bowl going to a museum. What the hospital
complained about was that they were not told about the discovery until a few
minutes before the public enquiry, that they had never even seen the object they
clearly owned and that they could not even get a receipt from the finders. The lesson
to be learned from this disaster will be obvious to all KAR readers though a final
comment from the Kentish Times is worth repeating:
"This is not a race for
Treasure Trove. It is an opportunity to fill in important blank spots in Dartford's
majestic history. The thrill and excitement which should have surrounded a major
discovery have been spoiled by petty quarrelling. The sense of achievement has been