This short guide provides information about reporting archaeological sites and finds to Norfolk Historic Environment Service (NHES).
Step 1 Finding archaeological sites and finds
Every year many thousands of archaeological objects and sites are discovered by members of the public. These need to be recorded before they are damaged or destroyed. These finds have the potential to tell us much about the past and where people used to live and about the types of objects they made and used.
There is also the potential for this information to be lost. If archaeological finds are made and not reported then information about the past is lost forever. This is why it is important to understand the role of artefacts in informing us about our history. Archaeology is a professional discipline. This does not mean that you need to spend years in a university before you can take part but it does mean that you should understand your own limitations and should ask for help if you are unsure.
All artefacts (with the possible exception of Treasure) belong to the owner of the land on which they were found. You must have permission from the landowner before searching for artefacts, and this includes areas such as footpaths and common land. We strongly suggest you discuss what will happen to the artefacts in advance and have a written agreement with the landowner.
There are some sites where it is illegal to search for objects without special permission, which must be obtained in writing. These include Scheduled Monuments which are protected by English Heritage and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The landowner should know if any of their land is protected in this way, but the sites are not usually marked clearly on the ground so check carefully before proceeding.
Reporting most artefacts is voluntary, however, under the Treasure Act (1996) Potential Treasure must be reported to the Coroner. Norfolk Historic Environment Service's Identification & Recording Service (I&RS) can help you do this.
The legal definition of Treasure is complex but it includes prehistoric hoards of metalwork, gold and silver artefacts and coin hoards over 300 years old, found in the ground and any object associated with them. A full definition, and more information, can be found on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.
Some objects have already been removed from their primary context or where they were originally deposited. These are the types of objects that are frequently found by the public. Ploughed fields often contain items that have been disturbed from the soil by the plough. Even though they have lost their primary context it is still important to record them.
These finds may be made by people out walking, digging their gardens or whilst going about their everyday work. Although these objects have turned up unexpectedly they still have the potential to tell us much about the past and so should be recorded as detailed below in step 2.
Fieldwalking and metal detecting surveys
Carefully thought out and planned fieldwalking and/or metal detecting over ploughed fields can help archaeologists to build up a picture of how the landscape was used in the past. These techniques simply remove objects from the surface (during fieldwalking) or disturbed ploughsoil (metal detecting). They do not disturb the untouched archaeology underneath.
This is the type of archaeology that members of the public can get involved with relatively easily. There is little risk of destroying archaeology that hasn’t already been disturbed and your finds, if properly recorded and reported as described below, will help us to understand past landscape use.
Joining your local archaeological society or metal detecting club is a good way to take part in local archaeological surveys under the guidance and supervision of experienced experts. If you do decide to go ahead and carry out a survey you must always obtain permission from the landowner. It is sensible to get permission in writing and to agree what will happen to any objects (including Treasure) you might find. There are some sites you are not allowed to survey without written permission.
The same rules about recording finds apply if you are undertaking more formal archaeological surveys. You must have permission from the landowner, you must report Treasure and you must not search Scheduled Monuments or Sites of Special Scientific Interest without the correct permission.
Fieldwalking and metal detecting surveys on ploughed land are a good way to record the distribution of artefacts over an area. Archaeologists, both amateur and professional, should devise a system for recording where their finds are recovered from before starting a survey. The location of objects should always be recorded as closely as possible. It is not enough to simply identify the field they came from. A variety of different techniques can be used. One of the easiest is to use a handheld GPS (global positioning system). These small gadgets use a system of satellites to pinpoint exactly where they are. During a survey when an object is found the system can be used to provide a 10-figure grid reference which is written on a bag and the object placed inside it. Alternatively the area can be divided into 10m by 10m or 20m by 20m grid squares using garden canes and tape measures and the grid plotted to scale on a map. Each square is then given a different number or letter. People spend the same amount of time collecting artefacts from each square, labelling the bag with the number or letter of the square they were in. When the time is up they move on to the next square, ensuring the results from each square can be accurately compared.
Collecting objects is just one small part of a project like this. The finds then have to be washed, slowely dried out, labelled, recorded by number, type and weight and the results plotted on a map. Some objects may need to be photographed or drawn and it is possible some may need conservation. You will also need to think about how and where the objects will be stored when the project is finished and finally, give a copy of the results to the Historic Environment Record at Norfolk Historic Environment Service so they can be related to other archaeological evidence from the area.
More advice about fieldwalking and metal detecting surveys can be found on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.
All the techniques above are for finding and recording artefacts which have already been removed from their archaeological context, usually by ploughing, and are on or near the surface. Excavation involves the removal of archaeological finds from their context.
Context is the word used to describe where an object comes from, the soils it lies in and the relationships and associations between objects, features (such as pits, ditches, graves or floor surfaces) and other forms of evidence. An object without a context is like one piece of a jigsaw puzzle. We can only see the complete picture by recording the context of the object.
When a site is excavated the layers, and any objects found within them, should be carefully recorded, as excavation destroys them. For example, an object may be buried in a grave, but this information will be lost forever if the context is not excavated and recorded properly. It is for this reason that we do not recommend you excavate or dig holes yourself without help. If you think you have found something important which is still in it's original context please contact Norfolk Historic Environment Service who may be able to help you excavate it.
There are several other ways to become involved with excavation with professional help and guidance. Some of the local societies carry out excavations. A list of these can be found in the Local Societies and Organisations section of the website. Alternatively a number of different organisations carry out training excavations where you can learn about the techniques and skills needed for excavation. A list of local training excavations is in the Getting Involved section of the website.
It is not recommended that you excavate or dig holes yourself without expert help. Despite good intentions it is often very easy to destroy fragile archaeological evidence. If you find something interesting that you think requires further investigation always contact Norfolk Historic Environment Service.
Step 2 How do I report my finds?
The Identification and Recording Service (I&RS) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in Norfolk exist to record artefacts found by members of the public. Most of these artefacts are in the plough or top soil on or near the surface and have already been removed from their archaeological context. Many are damaged. Often only small fragments remain. However, they can still add a great deal to our knowledge of Norfolk's past, and by reporting these finds to Norfolk Historic Environment Service you can ensure that this valuable information is not lost and can be related to other archaeological finds and sites in the area. Finds should be reported to:
Julie Shoemark, Finds Liaison Officer
Norfolk Historic Environment Service
Phone: 01362 860 528
We are interested in casual finds (accidental discoveries of archaeological objects), the results of any fieldwalking or metal detecting surveys and excavations that take place in Norfolk.
Step 3 What do I&RS need to know about my find?
To make a good record of your finds I&RS will:
- want to see everything
We record artefacts over 300 years old, whatever they are made of, but would rather see everything you have found. Pieces of pottery should be washed, unless they are fragile, before you bring them to us. Metal objects should not be washed but loose soil can be brushed off.
- need to borrow them
I&RS issue receipts for the objects that are left with them. Once the objects have been recorded they are returned to the person who brought them in (with the possible exception of Treasure). Some objects will need to be sent to specialist staff but objects will always be returned to the location you first took them to for collection. When you pick up your finds you will also receive a formal written identification.
I&RS take great care of objects you leave with them. However, they cannot undertake conservation, and do not have the resources to repackage large numbers of objects. We therefore recommend you package them carefully before bringing them to us. Advice on safe storage and conservation of archaeological objects can be found on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.
- ask where you found the objects
Where an object came from is as important as what it is. If your objects were recovered during an archaeological survey you should already have this information. If they are a casual find it is relatively easy to use our digital maps to pin point where they came from. I&RS will ask you to point out the field your objects came from on a map, or provide an eight figure National Grid Reference (NGR) for the centre of the field. If you have a GPS (Geographical Positioning System) a ten figure NGR for each find is ideal as we can then see the distribution of different types and dates of objects over the site. To save time please separate your artefacts by the field they were found in before you bring them to be recorded. If you have records of individual grid references it would help if these are written onto separate bags for each item.
- ask you how and when you found the artefact
We will also ask you how you found the object (for example, metal detecting, fieldwalking or gardening) and when.
Step 4 Where is the information recorded?
This information is entered onto the Norfolk Historic Environment Record (NHER) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.
M. Dennis (NLA) and E. Darch (NLA), 1 March 2006.