The Portable Antiquities Scheme; a virtual museum


Archaeology is not just found by professional archaeologists. Every year, thousands of objects are discovered by members of the public by chance. If they are reported to the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, everyone can learn from these discoveries. Amy Downes, the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Finds Liaison Officer for South and West Yorkshire, explains more in this guest blog written for the Festival of Archaeology 2021.


What is the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

The British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was set up to record archaeological objects found by members of the public; both metal detectorists and field-walkers, who deliberately seek these objects, and people who discover finds by chance, for example while gardening.

Cartoons showing a man with a metal detector, a man digging his garden and a woman walking her dog
People do often find archaeology by chance; when metal detecting, gardening, or just out walking.

Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) across England and Wales help identify finds and record them in a national database which is available to all at [LINK] http://www.finds.org.uk/database.  Recording the finds in detail allows further research into both the types and distribution of objects, helping to build a picture of life in former times.

A virtual museum waiting to be explored

The database is a rich resource of data ready to be used in research, or just to browse through to find your favourite items. Since the PAS was established more than 20 years ago, over 1.5 million objects have been recorded!

Photographs of the back and front of a papal seal from the Portable Antiquity Scheme database
On the 8th July 2020, PAS recorded its 1.5 millionth object. It is a seal from a papal document dating from the mid-13th century, and found in Shropshire. Database number HESH-6359C4
Photographs of the back and front of a corroded papal seal from the Portable Antiquity Scheme database
A similar object has been found in Barnsley too. Discovered in Penistone, this seal would have been attached to a document issued by Pope Gregory IX (AD 1227 – 1241). It may have then been placed in a field to bless it. Database number FAKL-20594E

Most of the database records include an image of the item, information about what it is and what it was used for, as well as dating evidence and a description. The findspot is a crucial piece of information, but we have to take care to protect vulnerable sites and the landowner’s privacy, so we record the exact findspot, but only publish it publically to 1 square kilometre.

There are over 400 finds recorded from Barnsley, ranging from Mesolithic to Modern. We aim to record all finds that are older than AD 1540, but we are more selective in recording younger objects, as it would be impossible to record everything.

Photographs of the back and front of a compass - a metal disk with holes punched in it - from the Portable Antiquity Scheme database



This compass face found in Brierley is an example of a modern object recorded because it is interesting and unusual. It dates from the 18th or 19th century and can be dated because the maker’s name is visible, and historic records show when the maker was active. Database number SWYOR-6FA956

Searching the PAS database

There are lots of ways to search through the database. Go to www.finds.org.uk/database to get started.

At the top of the page is a simple search box. You can use keywords for a basic search. Try “sword”. This will find every record that mentions the word sword, so all the sword belt fittings as well as the actual swords. You can enter several keywords to narrow your search. Try “tankard” and “Barnsley” to see one of the star finds from the Barnsley district, an Iron Age tankard handle!

Photographs of the back, front and sides of a copper alloy handle from the Portable Antiquity Scheme database
Part of a copper alloy handle from an Iron Age or Roman wooden tankard which was found in Hunshelf. Database reference number SWYOR-C8E9AA

Treasure

Reporting things that you find to PAS is voluntary, but there are certain classes of object that have to be declared by law. If you find any human remains you should contact the police straight away. You also need to look out for Treasure – yes, really! Items that are over 300 years old and made of gold or silver, or hoards of coins, are defined as Treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act and have to be reported to the coroner. For all these, and anything else unusual or significant, please contact me or your local FLO for advice. Read more about Treasure at https://finds.org.uk/treasure.

Photographs of the back, front and side of a round metal cufflink with a crown and twin heart design, from the Portable Antiquity Scheme database
This 17th century cuff link is an example of Treasure which had to be declared. It was found in Silkstone and kindly donated to Experience Barnsley Museum by the finder and the landowner. The design of the crown over two hearts is believed to commemorate the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1662, so it is an early piece of royalist memorabilia.
Database number SWYOR-67D6B8

Recording your finds

If you are lucky enough to find an archaeological object by chance, perhaps while gardening or when out walking, please do contact PAS to get it recorded. It’s really important that you make a note of the exact location where you found it. There are various phone apps you can use to find a grid reference, or a dropped pin on a google map will do. If you want a lower tech solution, working out where you were using a paper map is also fine!

Photographs of the back and front of a silver Roman coin from the Portable Antiquity Scheme database


A Roman denarius of Hadrian, found in Billingley, dating from AD 117 – 138. The finder recorded the findspot using GPS on a mobile phone, so we know exactly where it was found. When every find from a site is plotted precisely, we can map the finds and use the patterns to understand the area better. Database reference number: FAKL-3F4479

Once you have recorded the findspot, send it and, if possible, some images to me to give me a rough idea of what you have found. I can’t usually record a find just from images, as I need to handle the find to see all the details, but the photos will tell me whether your find is old enough to be recorded or not.

You then might be asked to bring your discovery along to one of the regular Finds Surgeries run in Barnsley, so your find can be examined properly. FLOs can record finds from anywhere in England or Wales, so if you find something while on holiday, you can still bring it to your local FLO. We will usually ask to borrow your find while we research it. Once it has been properly recorded, the find is returned to you, though if it is particularly special, you may be asked if you would like to allow the museum to acquire it.

Finds liaison officer and object finder at a desk with a screen in between them. Both are smiling at the camera.
Finder Robert Hodgson meeting me to hand his finds in for recording

So, please do dip into the PAS database and explore the discoveries that have been made in your area. Keep your eyes peeled while out and about, and maybe you’ll be able to find something that can add to Barnsley’s archaeological record. I look forward to adding your finds to our ever expanding virtual museum!

Amy Downes is the Finds Liaison Officer for South and West Yorkshire. She can be contacted on 0113 535 0173 or by emailing amy.downes@wyjs.org.uk. More information about the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme can be found on the PAS website, including the contact details of all the FLOs. You can also keep up to date by following @SWYOR_FLO on Twitter or taking a look at the Yorkshire PAS Facebook page.


Barnsley Festival of Archaeology Online 2021

Visit the Barnsley Museums website for more activities and information about the online festival: https://www.barnsley-museums.com/digital/festivals/festival-of-archaeology

We will be posting regularly on our social media channels throughout the festival too:

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