Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 cultural property.

  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.


  2.1  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.


  3.1  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 sites.

  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 ever before.


  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 [1998], fig 6).


  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.

March 2000

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