Protecting Northern Ireland's archaeology

Historic Monuments have been protected by legislation since 1869, when a number of ecclesiastical structures were transferred to the ownership of the State.


The legislation is the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995. The Order allows for Monuments to be protected by taking them into State Care or by Scheduling and also places restrictions on searching for archaeological material.  Anyone, including metal detectorists and divers intending to search for archaeological objects should be aware of these restrictions.

The Department for Communities also administers the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973) in Northern Ireland’s territorial waters, within 12 miles of shore, and have designated the wreck site of the Armada galleass Girona for protection under the Act. The Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995 also applies within territorial waters.

Archaeological objects

Archaeological objects discovered by members of the public, for instance, during fieldwork or excavating building foundations, must be reported to the Department’s Historic Environment Division (HED), to National Museums NI, or to the Police, within 14 days of discovery. Details such as where and how the object was found should be recorded.

Object(s) may then be held for up to three months to permit proper examination and recording.

The requirement to report applies to all archaeological objects, but additional procedures exist for objects which are suspected to be treasure.

Archaeological objects classified as treasure

On occasion certain types of archaeological objects are uncovered in Northern Ireland which are classified as treasure. Such objects fall under special legislation called The Treasure Act 1996, which replaced the common law of treasure trove in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Find out more;

Objects classified as treasure have to be dealt with under special procedures separate to that for other types of archaeological objects.

If you suspect that you have discovered any archaeological object, you should contact the Department, the Ulster Museum or the Police Service as soon as possible;

Any potential treasure items must also be reported to the Coroners Service, but this is usually done with the help of staff from HED or National Museums NI after you have reported the discovery to them.

Metal detecting

Anyone, including metal detectorists, intending to search for archaeological objects should be aware of the restrictions on searching for archaeological material imposed by the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995.

It is an offence to search for archaeological objects if that search involved disturbing the ground, without a licence issued by us. It is also an offence to be in possession of a detecting device on a protected site (Scheduled or State Care Monuments) or to remove an archaeological object from a protected site without written consent from HED.

Further information and guidance on the main points of the law regarding metal detecting in Northern Ireland can be found on the page;

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