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 to the relevant authority within 14 days of discovery. The relevant authority is defined in legislation and can be either the Department’s Historic Environment Division (HED), National Museums NI, or the Police, but National Museums NI usually take the lead in relation to archaeological objects. Details such as where and how the object was found should be recorded.

Object(s) may then be held for up to three months by the relevant authority 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 which are classified as treasure.  While most archaeological objects (whose owner is not otherwise known) are deemed to belong to the owner of the land where they are found, treasure belongs to the Crown.  Treasure is governed by its own legislation and rules which replaced the common law of treasure trove in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Find out more about what is treasure and what to do if you find it.

As outlined above, if you suspect you have discovered any archaeological object, including treasure, you should contact the relevant authority within 14 days of the find. Any potential treasure items must additionally be reported to the Coroners Service, but this is usually done with the help of staff from 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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