29 June 2012

Her Majesty's Thesaurus...

There's something picaresque about the phrase treasure trove.  It conjures up concealed vaults, the muted, mysterious gleam of hoarded silver and gold, of forgotten antiquities stoppered in the earth, waiting for some careless farmer or industrious archaeologist to bare them again to the open sky.

It is a little known fact, but if you are traipsing across the Scottish countryside and accidentally kick a Roman coin from the turf, or unearth some rust-attenuated Medieval instrument of warfare from beneath the mud, you don't suddenly become the lucky new owner of the historical artefact, nor can the land owner loot you of it for her personal collection.  Finders keepers, alas, is not a principle known to the law of Scotland.  Believe it or not, in law, that grimy Medieval penny you pried from the heath is the property of the Crown, and if you pocket it or pop it pride of place on your mantelpiece, you risk being prosecuted for theft.  

The key principle here - cue inevitable Latin - is quod nullius est fit domini regis.  In essence, that which is owned by nobody, accrues to the Crown, and that includes lost treasures of ages gone by which have been sealed beneath the soil by owners long ago gathered up to GodThe grandly-titled Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer is tasked with the administration of these regalian rights to treasures disinterredThis morning, she published her Annual Report on Treasure Trove in Scotland, which includes some of the more significant finds reported and claimed for the Crown, running from bronze-age axe heads to Medieval coins, crucifix mounts, a copper Christ-figure to an austere 17th century golden ring, emblazoned with the cheery motto + The + Lord + is + my + helper +. These include a striking Medieval (c.1200) silver seal matrix set with Roman intaglio, found in Doune, Stirling (above, right).  The report notes:

"Seal matrices were used to impress wax seals on documents, sealing an agreement in a literal and physical way. Like many this bears the owner’s name, Thomas de Lorie, although it has not been possible to track this individual down in contemporary documents. This object belongs to a select and significant group of similar seals, all of which reuse Roman gems and it is likely that these gems were not found by happenstance, but sourced directly from the Mediterranean world. The popularity of seal matrices like this reflects the 12th century rediscovery of ancient Greek works, and a growing awareness and appreciation of the Classical past. To a man such as Thomas his seal would have marked him as a cultured and learned individual and one aware of wider cultural and intellectual trends."

I'm particularly keen on a couple of the Roman finds made this last year, from Falkirk and Selkirk. The first is a neat little lion's head, and the second, this startling-looking eagle design, of which the Remembrancer writes:

"A copper alloy mount cast in the shape of an eagle head, the sacred bird of Juno. The eagle is depicted emerging from a flower with a berry held in the beak and was intended as a symbol of good luck or fertility. Mounts of this type were used on the supporting frames of Roman wagons and this is the first such mount from Scotland, with only a small number known from Britain."

The 2011/12 report notes that 165 finders reported their discoveries to the Treasure Trove Unit, with 2,045 individual "portable antiquities" dealt with during the period.  Although theoretically policed by the criminal law, you have to wonder how many more folk will have chanced across some historic gewgaw or ancient fragment on their travels this year, and quietly pocketed them, merrily ignorant about treasure trove, and the ancient property rights claimed by the Scottish Crown.


  1. What was the Selkirk find?

  2. The eagle's head hailed from Selkirk. Per the appendix to the report, I understand that it's been given over to the National Museums Scotland. Quite right too.

  3. The general feeling now is that such finds should be held locally if there is somewhere suitably safe (eg as has happened with some of the lewis Chessmen)- they stimulate local business. That remarkable wee eagle head should be kept in or near Selkirk (if possible) rather than Edinburgh.

    It should be noted that with some of the more dramatic recent finds not all may be as it seems - not everyone is convinced that that astonishing cavalry helmet found in Cumbria was actually left there by the Romans!

  4. A sleekit Pict perhaps, or like the Creations' accounts of dinosaur bones, left there by Mephistopheles to mislead the worldly from redemption?