Memorandum submitted by English Heritage
1.1 English Heritage is the Government's
advisor on all matters relating to the conservation of England's
historic environment, carrying out a range of identification,
grant and advisory work. We are directly responsible for the conservation
and management of 409 historic properties, and we are a registered
museum authority with large collections mainly deriving from the
buildings and sites in our care.
1.2 We welcome the opportunity to present
a written memorandum to the Select Committee on the return of
1.3 The Committee has indicated that it
wishes to consider illicit trade in antiquities, and in particular
the impact of that trade, the methods of counteracting it, the
policies and procedures of museums relating to the acquisition
and return of property which has been illicitly removed, the operational
effects of European legislation, and the advantages, disadvantages
and consequences of United Kingdom ratification of the 1995 UNIDROIT
Convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally
Exported Cultural Objects and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the
Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export,
and Transfer of the Ownership of Cultural Property.
1.4 Our principal concern in this inquiry
is the effect of the illegal trade in antiquities on the historic
environment of England. We would expect the Museums and Galleries
Commission and the new Museums, Libraries and Archives Council
to provide advice on issues specifically affecting museums. Restitution
is not a major issue for our own collections since, by their nature,
they are largely site-related. Our evidence is therefore focused
on the impact of illicit trade in antiquities on the archaeological
sites, historic gardens and buildings of England. Other organisations,
such as the Council for British Archaeology and the MacDonald
Institute for Archaeological Research of the University of Cambridge,
will deal with the impact of illicit trade on the archaeological
sites and architectural heritage of other countries.
2. THE SIGNIFICANCE
2.1 Artefacts from historic buildings, gardens
and archaeological sites are often attractive in their own right
and can be highly desirable to collectors. They are also important
sources of historical and archaeological information, particularly
if they come from a known provenance.
2.2 Items such as fireplaces, overmantels,
doors and other fittings are often critical to the character and
significance of an historic building. In many cases they are an
integral part of the architecture. If they are removed, buildings
may be damaged both aesthetically and structurally, and evidence
of their history will be lost.
2.3 Similar arguments apply to garden ornaments
and statues. These too are often attractive and collectable objects
in their own right, but they will have even greater value as part
of an important garden design. Their removal will inevitably diminish
the significance of the garden of which they formed part.
2.4 Archaeological artefacts, in their context,
provide irreplaceable evidence of humanity's past activity, often
from periods for which no other records survive. Objects can supply
critical dating evidence and help archaeologists interpret the
nature of a site and the way it was used. Their association with
artefacts of other types can tell us much about trading and social
contacts at different periods, while geographical distribution
can provide evidence for the extent of particular cultures. The
removal of artefacts from their context without record means that
this information is lost forever, while the act of removal can
itself damage a site and destroy further evidence.
3. THE SCALE
3.1 It is inevitably difficult to quantify
the scale of illegal acquisition of antiquities, including garden
features and architectural fittings. It is even more difficult
to quantify the extent to which objects are removed illegally
from the country. Not all illicit trade involves theft; some artefacts
are illegally removed and exported by their owners, or with the
owner's knowledge and consent.
3.2 In 1995, the Council for British Archaeology/English
Heritage report Metal Detecting and Archaeology in England
calculated that around 400,000 objects a year were found by metal
detector users. In September 1997, the Department for Culture,
Media and Sport introduced the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Its
purpose is to encourage the reporting of finds of antiquities
made by metal detector users and others. It is now operating on
a trial basis in 11 areas covering more than half of England and
Wales. It has been generally successful in raising awareness of
the importance of archaeological finds and has resulted in a marked
increase in the number of finds reported to museums. Around 20,000
finds were recorded in 1998-99.
3.3 The vast bulk of this material is recovered
legally by responsible metal detector users with the consent of
the owner of the land concerned. There is however a small number
of detector users who deliberately loot protected sites without
permission, often at night. This material is recovered without
any record and often with considerable incidental damage to the
3.4 A good example of this is the Roman
site at Corbridge, a supply base and town behind Hadrian's Wall.
The whole site is a scheduled ancient monument. Part of the site
is in the care of English Heritage, while the remainder is ploughed.
Over a period of three and a half years from April 1989 to September
1993, 24 separate incidents of illegal metal detecting were recorded,
resulting in each case in several holes dug into the site (on
one occasion up to 55). This situation was only brought under
control by the employment of a night watchman for the period immediately
after harvest each year when the site seemed to be most at risk.
3.5 There are also problems with underwater
archaeological sites. Although unquantified, the uncontrolled
removal of antiquities from the seabed, within both territorial
and international waters, appears to be on the increase as improvement
in diving and remote survey techniques permit divers and salvors
to explore the seabed in more detail and at greater depth than
4. THE EXPORT
4.1 Any archaeological finds more than 100
years old require an export licence. In 1998-99, the Department
for Media, Culture and Sport issued 777 licences for the export
of such material. This of course is all material recovered legally.
4.2 There is recorded evidence of illegal
export of archaeological material, with occasional Customs seizures
of material. The Icklingham bronzes were a cause celebre some
years ago. A large number of Romano-British bronze objects were
looted from Icklingham, a Roman site in Suffolk, and eventually
appeared in a private collection in the USA. Their owner was unable
to recover them, though his persistence eventually resulted in
the promise of their present possessors to leave them to the British
Museum on their death.
4.3 The story of the Salisbury Hoard, a
large find of Bronze Age and Iron Age bronzes, also shows what
can happen. This was a very significant hoard, found near Salisbury
by metal detector users operating without the landowner's permission.
The hoard was subsequently broken up, parts being offered to the
British Museum while others went abroad and have yet to be recovered
(see I M Stead: The Salisbury Hoard , fig 6).
5. POSSIBLE WAYS
5.1 The problem of illegal removal of components
of archaeological sites and historic buildings needs to be tackled
at various levels, from the better physical protection of the
sites and buildings themselves, through effective response to
theft and its detection, to the recovery of stolen goods when
they are located.
5.2 For protected sites (scheduled ancient
monuments and listed buildings), some protection exists in the
form of heritage legislation. The 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological
Areas Act makes it an offence to carry out any works to a scheduled
archaeological site without consent from the Secretary of State
for Culture, Media and Sport. Specific consent from English Heritage
is required for the use of metal detectors on scheduled sites.
It is an offence under the planning legislation to remove listed
structures or parts of such structures without listed building
consent. Other sites and buildings are protected by common and
criminal law in the same way as any other private property.
5.3 The case for further strengthening of
legislation, or otherwise improving protective measures for vulnerable
parts of our heritage within the United Kingdom, are clearly issues
to be considered in the Government's review of policies relating
to the historic environment, announced in January. As the first
stage of this review, English Heritage has been asked to prepare
a report to be submitted to Ministers in September 2000.
5.4 Internationally, there are four possible
pieces of legislation which could assist owners of material from
the United Kingdom in retrieving stolen property. The UK is already
bound by the European Union Council Regulation No. 3911/92 and
the Council Directive 93/7/EEC. The former requires the issue
of export licences for taking material outside the European Union,
while the latter provides for the recovery of "national treasures"
illegally exported to other countries within the European Union.
The Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural
Property of 1985 appears to be a dead letter, having been
signed only by six countries and ratified by none. The UNESCO
1970 Convention and the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention have, however,
been ratified by 91 and 22 states respectively, although not yet
by the United Kingdom. The UNESCO Convention already covers most
of the countries with an active market in the sale of antiquities,
and usefully extends the provisions of the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage
Convention which the United Kingdom ratified in 1984, for example
by requiring antique dealers to keep registers recording the origin
of items and details of suppliers and purchasers. The 1995 UNIDROIT
Convention has strong similarities to the EU Regulation and Directive
by which the UK is already bound. Ratification would not impose
significant additional burdens within the UK, but it would help
to encourage other countries outside the European Union, not bound
by the European legislation, to follow suit. This would assist
in the recovery of antiquities illegally exported from England.
5.5 We believe that the ratification of
both Conventions by the United Kingdom would send an important
signal, as well as providing practical assistance in recovering
archaeological and architectural material. Ratification would
provide us with international legislation to recover items which
have travelled illegally outside the European Union. It would
also send a strong message to those involved in the looting of
our heritage that this issue is taken seriously, and that recovery
of items will be pursued effectively.