Discovery of Viking Hoard Leads to Jail Sentences for Metal Detectorists

The legal obligations and responsibilities imposed on metal detectorists were highlighted recently in a well-publicised case involving two men who were given lengthy jail sentences by a judge at Worcester Crown Court for failing to declare and selling to dealers a very rare and valuable find of coins and jewellery in a field in Herefordshire. They were convicted of theft and concealing their find.

Two other men were also found guilty of conspiring to conceal the coins.

The Viking hoard, which included about 300 coins, a 9th century gold ring, a dragon’s head bracelet, and a crystal rock pendant, were discovered by metal detectorists, George Powell and Layton Davies, in 2015. Experts say the coins were Saxon but believed to have been hidden by a Viking.

Just 31 coins and some pieces of jewellery have been recovered; the rest are still missing. The metal detectorists failed to reveal the precise location of the hoard, or what happened to the rest of it.

Judge Nicholas Cartwright sentenced the pair to 10 years and eight and a half years in prison. Some may consider these sentences to be somewhat harsh but it is important to understand some of the reasons behind them.

Why did the metal detectorists receive jail sentences?

Firstly, the metal detectorists cheated the landowner. It appears that they may not have obtained the prior written permission of the landowner before carrying out metal detecting activities, and they failed to tell him about their find. Broadly speaking, “treasure” now includes all objects containing precious metal that were buried for any reason and are at least 300 years old. Failure to record a find of “treasure” could result in a fine and / or up to three months in prison. Finds must be reported to the coroner in the district in which it was found within 14 days. If the coroner declares the find to be treasure, museums will have the opportunity to purchase it. The treasure is valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee and they recommend a figure to the Secretary of State for Culture. The museum pays that amount if the valuation is agreed and a reward (equal to the full market value of the treasure) is usually paid to the finder and / or the owner / occupier of the land. In this case, not only did the metal detectorists fail to obtain the prior written permission of the landowner but they also did not tell him about the find. This means that they effectively cheated the landowner because he would have been entitled to half of the substantial value of the treasure.

Secondly, the metal detectorists cheated the public. The treasure belongs to the nation and it should be seen by others. If displayed locally, it would have been accessible to members of the public and would have attracted tourists who wanted to come and view the hoard.

Thirdly, the treasure is of historical significance. The Viking hoard dated back 1,100 years to the beginnings of a united English kingdom. It could have been buried by someone from the Great Viking Army in the 9th century, when the Saxons were pushing the Vikings back to the east of England. This find was the most significant link to this period of Herefordshire’s history that has been found to date. Experts will not be able to examine the sequence of events relating to the burial, or the relationship between the individual items in the hoard.

The sentences handed down in this case highlight the importance attached to our heritage and culture, in which we all have an interest. The items that have been lost to the nation in this case were described by the prosecutor as of “immense archaeological, historical and academic value”, which probably helps to explain why seemingly harsh sentences were passed in this particular case. The metal detectorists not only failed to declare their find, but they also sold the majority of the treasure to dealers and did not reveal what had happened to the treasure. They would have received a substantial payment if they had declared the hoard. If they had obtained the correct permission they would have been entitled to half of the value of the hoard between them, which was estimated at between £3 and £12 million. However, Judge Nicholas Cartwright said that the pair wanted more. There was clearly an element of greed.