Treasures of the Past: Brought to you by the Public

The communication of ideas and beliefs has been a constant throughout the history of humankind.  Archaeology shows us that in the overlapping of the material cultures of humans in the ancient and recent past.  In most cases these exchanges between people provided new perspectives and insights that have allowed for growth and new discoveries.  However even though humanity has been communicating with each other for as long as anyone can remember, people can still have a hard time getting the message.

Metal Detectorists discover hundreds of thousands of artifacts every year

Archaeological results are often one of the many causalities, often not published well enough or made available to others who wish to read it, be it other archaeologists or the general public. This was a source of great frustration for Archaeologists concerning metal detectorists in England during the 1990’s.  A survey conducted in 1995 among the populace indicated that even though a large number of artifacts were being uncovered each year, only a small fraction of these finds were actually being reported to Museums.  There was also the unsettling problem of small groups of people using metal detectors to loot sites that had been scheduled for professional excavation.  This led to the passage of the Treasure Act in 1996 which set down new guidelines for what “finders of objects legally defined as treasure” were required to do with those objects.

Ancient coins are one of the most frequently found items when using metal detectors

Not a year later the Portable Antiquities Scheme was created, an initiative designed to help coordinate between amateur ‘finders’ and local Museums.  The program was originally piloted at only six locations through England and had minimal funding.  Each program was assigned a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) who acted as a point of contact for these ‘finders’.  Metal detectorists could take their finds to the Liaison Officers; who would then record the object’s discovery, provide relevant information and history on the object and if not deemed a ‘Treasure’ would return this item to its finder.  FLO’s also served as educators to the finders as far as legislation regarding the search and discovery of artifacts to local archaeological issues.  These points of contact allowed for a channel of communication between the public and Archaeological community that gained further momentum with the establishment of a public online database in 1999.  This database designed as a place for people to document their discoveries as well as look for relevant information on potential artifacts.  The scope of accessibility was widened significantly and it drastically increased the amount of information Archaeologists had on the distribution of artifacts in England.

While a number of Archaeologists have raised concerns over site integrity and future vandalism, this kind of connection between the academic community and the public is imperative for developing continued interest in Archaeology.  The communication of ideas and knowledge must happen at every possible level, if only a select group of people are made aware of the impact of the past upon the present then anything we might gain from studying it will mean nothing.


Hunt, Alex. “BBC – History – Ancient History in depth: Archaeology and Metal Detecting.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

“History.” British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.


Further Reading

Disaster Archaeology: Joya de Cerén

Natural disasters are categorized as devastating events in nature that occur abruptly and often with terrible ramifications.  Violent storms, mudslides and volcanic eruptions have been the cause of destruction in many an ancient civilization, often leaving behind no trace of the people who inhabited them.  However, in a bit of an ironic twist, these same circumstances are what have preserved many ancient cultures for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.  One such example of this is Joya de Cerén, the literal translation of which is ‘The Jewel of Cerén’.

One of the buildings uncovered at Joya de Cerén

Located in present day El Salvador, Joya de Cerén was a pre-Hispanic farming community that was active during the Mayan Classic period (A.D. 300-900).  This archaeological site was preserved in the same way as the famous Italian city of Pompeii.  Around 600 A.D. a nearby volcano, Loma Caldera, erupted and covered the surrounding area in thick layers of ash and other volcanic debris.  This natural disaster acted as a natural preserving agent that protected the architecture, artifacts, ecofacts and even the fields used by the ancient farmers.  All of which was still as the inhabitants had left them while fleeing.  As much as this site was a miraculous find for archaeologists with its remarkable level of preservation, it was made even more unique due to the fact that the area was largely non-elite.  For the most part research into Mayan culture has focused on the rich and elite of society as their marks have stood the test of time more easily than that of the general populace.

An piece of pottery recovered from Joya de Cerén

However, Joya de Cerén gives the world a rare view into the lives of common ancient Mesoamerican farmers.  The layers of volcanic ash allowed for the preservation of the architecture and artefacts of the ancient site that were left ‘in-situ’ or in their original positions of storage and use.  The personal dwellings give us a clear picture of the day-to-day lives of an ancient Mesoamerican farmer.  Religious items, animal remains and even the sleeping mats have been preserved, all ordinary items at the time that would seem to have no large importance on their own but provide much valuable information together (Joya de Cerén Archaeolofical Site).  Several other types of structures have been preserved as well, such as religious and community buildings, storehouses and even a sweat bath.  The fields were also well preserved and show what kinds of foods were the staple of these ancient people’s diets.  These structures and their intact contents give detailed information about how the village functioned as a community, their beliefs and traditions and even their dietary practices.  Again all features that might seem meaningless to the average person, but allow researchers to gain a clearer understanding of the life these ancient people lived and how that relates to the people in the present.


Banyasz, Malin G. “From the Trenches – Off The Grid – Archaeology Magazine Archive.” From the Trenches – Off The Grid – Archaeology Magazine Archive. Archaeological Institute of America, Mar. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.


Further Reading: