To farm or manage land is to appreciate that you’re only the latest person in a long line to do so. One CLA member was reminded of this responsibility when he found a 2,000-year-old fragment of a silver Roman ring.
Richard Murton, Co-owner and Manager of Bodynfoel Estate in Powys and a keen detectorist, was using his metal detector on a neighbouring farmer’s land when he stumbled upon the discovery.
“I found the fragment in eight inches of soil – it looked like a piece of costume jewellery, and the friend I was with thought it was rubbish, as a few feet away at the same depth he found a modern 20p,” Richard says.
“I wasn’t so sure, so I took it home to have a closer look as I thought it could be silver. It’s only a fragment, but you can see areas of intaglio where a gemstone may have been originally. I showed it to an expert from Wrexham Museum, and she confirmed it was treasure.”
The fragment is estimated to be from the 1st or 2nd century AD, making it nearly 2,000 years old. Richard found it on 6 November 2022 in a field under pasture in Llanfechain. It was declared treasure by the area coroner for South Wales Central a year later.
Evan Chapman, Senior Curator at Museum Wales, wrote a report on the fragment for the coroner. He says: “Roman finds other than coins in Wales are very rare – I probably only see about one a year. Reporting treasure finds to the appropriate organisation is essential and a legal obligation. At that point, Amgueddfa Cymru - Museum Wales in Wales (or the British Museum in England) acts as an adviser to the coroner and produces a report to say if we believe the object is more than 300 years old and more than 10% precious metal.
“This was a very straightforward case as the ring fragment is pure, solid silver, and it’s Roman.”
Richard began metal detecting many years ago using an old Minelab metal detector owned by his wife. When another detectorist asked for permission to explore the grounds of Bodynfoel Estate, he granted permission on the proviso that he could go with him.
“We went to an old gateway on a field with an old track, and within half an hour, we’d found three coins from three different periods in the past 200 years. Over the years, countless people have passed through the gateway, dropping money as they went. It was amazing - I was hooked.”
When his father passed away in 2015, Richard purchased a more up-to-date metal detector with his inheritance.
“People liken detecting to fishing – it’s quite a solitary hobby, and when you hear the beeps on the detector, I imagine it feels like when you get a bite on the line. You experience highs and lows, but when you find something great, those moments make it all worthwhile.”
It is a legal obligation to report anything found on your land that falls under the definition of treasure. Before detecting or giving permission to another, ensure you know the rules. Advice is available from the CLA legal department and the Portable Antiquities website.
Helen Shipsey, CLA Senior Legal Adviser, explains that a recent change to the definition of treasure has made the qualifying criteria broader. “In July 2023, the definition was expanded to allow an element of judgment, not just an assessment on material and age. This means the role of your local finds liaison officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme is all the more important.”
A find may now be considered treasure if it provides significant insight into an aspect of national or regional history, archaeology or culture.
Monetary gain isn’t the aim of most detectorists, and most items are not as valuable as the term ‘treasure’ implies. However, adding to historical knowledge of an area is a significant motivation.
“There was a lot of Roman and Iron Age activity in the south of Wales, then up the coast and around to north Wales, but I’ve been told there is a big gap of knowledge where we are,” Richard says.
“My first good find was an Iron Age axe head made of bronze, from around 800-600 BC, which was in really good condition. When I reported it to my finds liaison officer, they told me that these sorts of finds were scarce around this area. I feel as though I’m adding a few bits of information with my finds.”
Safeguarding land for the future
Detecting has fostered Richard’s appreciation for his land and increased his desire to safeguard it for future generations.
Detecting has given me more of a sense of the ancientness of our land and those people working to their bones on it before steam power and tractors
“They were labouring so hard their buttons would pop off their jackets - their hard-earned coins would fall through holes in their pockets and now I’m finding them,” he jokes.
The Bodynfoel Estate no longer uses fertiliser, after Richard discovered it can have a tangible impact on anything picked up by the detector.
“If land has been quite heavily farmed and a lot of fertiliser has been used year on year, then the acidity will often be quite high. In some heavily farmed arable fields that I’ve detected there are no worms left, very little biodiversity in the soil and heavy compaction.
“More perishable metals will be trashed by acidic soil. Something that could’ve remained in a good condition until a century ago might’ve been ruined by more recent farming practices. A George III penny can look very different depending on what the land has been used for and how the soil has been treated.
“It drove home my realisation that we’re just custodians, passing through. Because of that we want to ensure it is in better fettle for the next generation.”