The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), run by the British Museum and National Museum Wales, encourages the recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of archaeological objects are discovered, many of these by metal detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work. Finds recorded with the Scheme help advance knowledge of the history and archaeology of England and Wales.
The Scheme has a network of county-based Finds Liaison Officers (FLO) who work with the public, often metal-detectorists, to record their discoveries. Alongside these FLOs are a group of specialists, known as National Finds Advisers (NFA), who provide expert advice, training and support for the FLO network.
The Ashmolean’s Heberden Coin Room has been home to the National Finds Adviser for Early Medieval and Later coinage since 2004 (a role held since 2007 by John Naylor, (right), covering coinage and numismatic-related items (such as tokens, jettons and medals) dating from the 5th century onwards. NFAs also undertake research on the finds recorded, promoting their work to both academic and public audiences.
John’s research has included the publication of the nationally-important Watlington Hoard (see below), acquired by the Ashmolean Museum in 2017, and the project ‘An Iron-Age to Post-Roman Landscape on the Berkshire Downs’, recording nearly 2,000 ancient artefacts found by metal-detectorists alongside work to investigate and understand the site and its landscape. He also regularly gives public talks and write a PAS column in the metal-detecting magazine 'Treasure Hunting'.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme in the Ashmolean
The vast majority of the finds recorded by the PAS are returned to their finders, but some do find their way into museum collections.
The Ashmolean has acquired a number of objects for its collections which were first reported to the PAS (some coming under the Treasure Act 1996). These include small everyday objects – coins and metalwork – but also items of archaeological and historical significance in their own right.
Important additions to the Museum’s collections include a bronze head of the deified Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–80, pictured right), which was probably mounted on a staff or pole and carried in religious processions. And two hoards: one found in Asthall (Oxfordshire) comprised 210 gold coins dating from the reigns of Henry VI–Henry VIII (1470–1547) and may have belonged to a wealthy wool merchant or have been buried during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The other is the late 9th-century Watlington Hoard (pictured below right), a mix of Anglo-Saxon silver pennies and Scandinavian precious metal ingots and jewellery.
Important not only as the first large Viking-Age hoard found in Oxfordshire, the Watlington coins are also very rare examples of shared designs between Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (r. 871–99) and his Mercian counterpart, Ceolwulf II (r. 874–9), struck at the time that the Viking Great Army was raiding and conquering much of southern England, eventually defeated by Alfred’s army at the Battle of Edington in 878; it is likely that the Watlington Hoard is related to this event and its aftermath.
The PAS is one of the great success stories of British archaeology and heritage over the last two decades and the Ashmolean has played an important role in this. In providing opportunities for outreach, acquisition and research it has been a fruitful relationship for all.