A Guide to Metal Detecting, Archaeology and the Law

This page details the legal and ethical implications of metal-detecting in Northern Ireland. It should be emphasised that the archaeological legislation here has more provisions than in Great Britain, as the law in Northern Ireland does not distinguish between known and as yet undiscovered archaeological sites or monuments.

The Department for Communities is charged with caring for the natural and built heritage and will not hesitate to enforce The Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995 to deter those who choose to damage and/or loot archaeological sites for personal gain. But the Department is also aware that it needs the support of the public, particularly those who already have an interest in the past. It also needs to educate and inform those who participate in treasure hunting.

Metal-Detecting in Northern Ireland

The Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995 introduced specific restrictions on the possession and use of detecting devices.

  • It is an offence to be in possession of such a device on a scheduled or a State Care site without the written consent of the Department.
  • It is also an offence to remove an archaeological object found with a detector from such a site without written consent. There are further restrictions involving the search for archaeological objects.
  • Such a search can be undertaken only by those with a ‘licence to excavate’ issued under the Order. Usually such a licence is granted only to bona fide archaeologists, historians or experienced amateurs engaged in legitimate archaeological research or rescue excavations.

You should also be aware that there are laws covering other possible aspects of treasure-hunting, such as:

  • damage to archaeological sites that are in State Care or have been scheduled under the Order
  • reporting the discovery of archaeological objects
  • treasure
  • trespass

Archaeological objects found in the ground, unless covered by treasure regulations, are usually deemed to belong to the owner of the land on which they were found. The removal of such objects without the owner’s consent could be regarded as theft.

Any person finding such objects, including treasure, should report their discovery and surrender them within 14 days to:

  • the Ulster Museum
  • the Northern Ireland Environment Agency: Built Heritage Directorate, DOE
  • the local police station

You may feel that the prohibitions and warnings given above serve only to dampen the amateur’s legitimate interest in and enthusiasm for the past and its relics. The intention of the law, however, is clear - it is to support the interests of the public as a whole, to prevent damage to ancient sites, to prevent the looting of such sites for personal gain, and to encourage the reporting of discoveries of antiquities so that the information that such objects convey can be studied.

These regulations are intended to encourage the finders of archaeological objects to declare them to the authorities, in the knowledge that, if they discovered them legitimately, finders cannot lose in any way by declaring them.

Legislation Extracts

The Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995, relating to treasure-hunting issues.

Part II, article 29

(1) If a person has a detecting device in his possession in a protected place without the written consent of the Department he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.

(3) If a person without the written consent of the Department removes any archaeological object which he has discovered by the use of a detecting device in a protected place he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or on conviction to a fine.

(5) If any person – (a) in using a detecting device in a protected place in accordance with any written consent granted by the Department for the purposes of this Article; or (b) in removing or otherwise dealing with any object which he has discovered by the use of a detecting device in a protected place in accordance with any such consent, fails to comply with any condition attached to the consent, he shall be guilty of an offence and liable, in a case falling within subparagraph (a), to a penalty provided by paragraph (1), and in a case falling within sub-paragraph (b), to a penalty provided by paragraph (3).

(6) In any proceedings for an offence under paragraph (1) or (3), it shall be a defence for the accused to prove that he had taken all reasonable precautions to find out whether the place where he had the detecting device in his possession or (as the case may be) used it was a protected place and did not believe that it was.

Part III, article 41

(1) Any person who, except under and in accordance with any conditions attached to a licence issued by the Department under this Article, excavates in or under and land (whether or not such excavation involves the removal of the surface of the land) for the purpose of searching generally for archaeological objects or of searching for, exposing or examining any particular structure or thing of archaeological interest shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale...

Part III, article 42

(1) Any person who finds an archaeological object ... shall, within 14 days of finding the object - (a) report to a relevant authority - (i) the circumstances of the finding; (ii) the nature of the object found; and (iii) the name (if known) of the owner or occupier of the land on which the object was found; and (b) subject to paragraph

(2), deposit the object with the relevant authority. (2) Where the archaeological object found is not readily portable, the finder shall so specify in his report under paragraph (1), and shall state where any person authorised in that behalf by the Director or the Department may inspect the object.

(4) An archaeological object which is deposited with the Director or the Department ... may be retained by the Director or the Department for the statutory period for the purpose of examining and recording it and carrying out any test or treatment which appears ... to be desirable for the purpose of archaeological investigation or analysis or with a view to restoring or preserving the object.

(6) Except with the consent of the Director or the Department, the finder shall not, before the expiration of the statutory period, deliver the archaeological object to a person other than a relevant authority or otherwise part with the possession of the object.

(7) A finder who, without reasonable cause, acts in contravention of any provision of this Article, and any other person (other than a relevant authority) who, knowingly and without the consent of a relevant authority, obtains possession of any archaeological object before the expiration of the statutory period, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

(11) Nothing in this Article - (a) affects the right of the Crown in relation to any treasure within the meaning of the Treasure Act1996; or (b) affects the right of any person to the ownershipof an archaeological object.

(12) In this Article - “the Director” means the Director of the Ulster Museum; “relevant authority” means the Director, the Department or the officer in charge of a police station; “the statutory period” in relation to an archaeological object means the period of 3 months beginning with the date on which a report of the finding of that object is made under paragraph (1).

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