Images of Public Finds from the DIME database

Author: Andres S. Dobat,  Institut for Kultur og Samfund – Afdeling for Arkæologi og Kulturarvsstudier.

The first public finds of portable antiquities found their way into the ARIADNEplus Data Infrastructure at the end of 2021. These are records from the Danish DIME database (DIME stands for DIgital MEtal detector finds) which is an online recording portal for portable antiquities found by members of the public in Denmark. Currently, the DIME collection consists of over 8,000 portable antiquities, ranging from the stone age to modern times. However, new finds records are constantly added to DIME by citizens, in cooperation with Danish museum professionals. The DIME portal is a citizen science tool, that enables members of the public to participate in the creative process of identification, study, protection, and presentation of archaeological heritage. Other public finds repositories will soon follow (see below) enabling members of the public to use the ARIADNE Portal as a citizen science research tool. For example, as a cross-national reference collection and a tool for identifying, dating, and contextualising new finds. Furthermore, with the inclusion of public finds in the ARIADNE Portal, the project aims to promote a wider interest in questions of archaeology and heritage by citizen scientists and the public. 

What are public finds?

Most archaeological objects are the result of expert investigations by professional archaeologists. Such investigations can be conducted by archaeological companies, museums or universities. However, a growing number of archaeological discoveries are also made by members of the public, either by chance or as a result of targeted search for archaeological objects. These finds are designated as ‘public finds’ in the ARIADNEplus database.

A varied assemblage

The vast majority of public finds in the ARIADNEplus database are portable antiquities, i.e. single artefacts found on the surface of cultivated fields or retrieved from the plough soil. The public finds category is extremely varied. Finds range over a broad chronological span, from the earliest traces of human activity to modern 20th century artefacts. Typical objects are stone tools (mainly dating to the Stone Age), ceramics (from all periods) and metal artefacts and coins (mainly from the Bronze Age and until modern times). The over-representation of metal artefacts and coins among public finds is due to the widespread use of metal detectors in countries where this practice is permitted.

Public finds as scientific data

In contrast to archaeological finds from expert excavations, portable antiquities normally lack a narrowly defined context. In most cases, the finds context is the plough soil they were embedded in when found. In other cases, the context may not have been recorded or even destroyed due to irresponsible behaviour of the finder in the field. Portable antiquities can be used in archaeological research like all other archaeological finds. Working with portable antiquities as scientific data only requires a specific analytical approach in order to make them contribute to our understanding of the past. A preposition for using portable antiquities as scientific data is that they are digitally recorded and made publicly accessible.

 Harvesting ‘public finds’

Most of the finds designated as public finds in the ARIADNEplus database will stem from a number of national or regional recording schemes, designed to facilitate and encourage the recording of artefacts and coins found by members of the public. While in some of these schemes, artefact recording is done primarily by professional archaeologists, others allow finders to record their finds directly, e.g. via a specifically designed user interface/application. The recording schemes that are supplying selected data into the ARIADNEplus database are:

  • DIME (Denmark)
  • AIS CR via ARUP (Czech Republic)
  • PAS (England and Wales) via ADS (Archaeology Data Service)
  • PAN (The Netherlands) via DANS
  • SuALT/FindSampo (Finland)

At the time of publication, records are available from DIME and AIS CR with the rest being added over the next few months.

Legal frameworks

The search for archaeological artefacts and coins by members of the public is the subject of national or regional heritage protection laws, which differ from country to country and, sometimes, even from region to region. While legal frameworks in some countries/regions allow or even encourage members of the public to search and salvage archaeological finds as long as this is done in a responsible manner, other countries have banned or at least restricted this practice in order to safeguard the archaeological heritage against plunder, destruction and theft. Public finds in the ARIADNEplus database all stem from countries/regions with legal frameworks allowing members of the public to search for archaeological artefacts in a responsible manner.

Archaeology as citizen science and its value to society

Within academia, the broader social trends towards civic inclusion and public participation are increasingly assimilated under the banner of “citizen science”. Public participation in scientific research has become increasingly relevant over the past decades, including archaeology. This not only as a means of acquiring big data but also as an avenue towards a more democratic approach to research and a broader appraisal of evidence based and informed decision-making in society.

Many public finders are highly committed to their hobby and engage actively and creatively with the archaeological record. Many are driven by a genuine interest in their own and other’s finds. With the inclusion of public finds in the ARIADNEplus infrastructure, we also want to provide these public finders with a research tool. Public finders with a special interest in specific artefact categories can actively use the ARIADNEplus portal as a reference collection and learn more about their finds and what they represent. Furthermore, this will raise awareness for the importance of archaeological data in society and engender a sense of communal ownership and responsibility of the European archaeological heritage.

Problematic aspects of public finds

The concept of public finds also is a contentious issue. Heritage sites from all periods across Europe have been plundered by illegal or irresponsible public finders in search of artefacts for their own personal collections or for sale, or simply in ignorance. Heritage crime and illegal treasure hunting constitutes a severe threat and thousands of archaeological artefacts are discovered by private finders violating protection laws or ignoring basic principles of best archaeological practice in the field. The antiquities procured by such illegal searches rarely reach the light of day and certainly not the records of the official heritage management agencies or research institutions. Accompanied only by limited information —if any at all—on contexts and location, these antiquities will always remain blind sources.

TheEuropean Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage(Valetta 1992) puts emphasise on the safeguarding and preservation of the archaeological heritage. It prescribes in article 3 that parties apply procedures for the authorisation and supervision of excavation and other archaeological activities in such a way as

  • to prevent any illicit excavation or removal of elements of the archaeological heritage;
  • to ensure that archaeological excavations and prospecting are undertaken in a scientific manner (…)
  • to ensure that excavations and other potentially destructive techniques are carried out only by qualified, specially authorised persons;
  • to subject to specific prior authorisation, whenever foreseen by the domestic law of the State, the use of metal detectors and any other detection equipment or process for archaeological investigation.

Metal detector finds

Metal artefacts and coins make up the majority of the finds categorised as ‘public finds’. Most of them are the result of targeted surveys using metal detectors, a popular hobby in many European countries with a growing number of practitioners. The recording schemes currently pushing selected data into the ARIADNEplus database have all been initiated mainly to facilitate the recording of metal detector finds, under national or regional legal frameworks allowing this practice. Hobby metal detecting for archaeological objects is a contentious issue. Some argue in favour of restrictive policies towards non-professional metal detecting in order to protect the archaeological heritage against looting and irresponsible practice. Others argue in favour of a cooperative approach in order to make finds and data accessible to the general public and for research as well as to include the public in the management of the archaeological heritage.

Additional resources

Dobat, A., Deckers, P., Heeren, S., Lewis, M., Thomas, S., & Wessman, A. (2020). Towards a Cooperative Approach to Hobby Metal Detecting: The European Public Finds Recording Network (EPFRN) Vision Statement. European Journal of Archaeology, 23(2), 272-292. https://doi:10.1017/eaa.2020.1

Gill, D.W.J. 2010. The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales? Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 20: 1-11.

Hardy, S.A. 2017. Quantitative Analysis of Open-Source Data on Metal Detecting for Cultural Property: Estimation of the Scale and Intensity of Metal Detecting and the Quantity of Metal-Detected Cultural Goods. Cogent Social Sciences, 3: 1298397.

Rodríguez Temiño, I. & Roma Valdés, A. 2015. Fighting against the Archaeological Looting and the Illicit Trade of Antiquities in Spain. International Journal of Cultural Property, 22: 111–30.

Valletta 1992. European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage, Valletta, 16.I.1992 (Council of EuropeTreaty No.143).

Wessman, A., Thomas, S., Rohiola, V., Koho, M., Ikkala, E., Tuominen, J., Hyvönen, E., Kuitunen J., Parviainen, H. & Niukkanen, M. 2019. Citizen Science in Archaeology: Developing a Collaborative Web Service for Archaeological Finds in Finland. In: J. H.  Jameson & S. Musteață, eds. Transforming Heritage Practice in the 21st Century, Contributions from Community Archaeology (One World Archaeology). Cham: Springer, pp. 337-352.

Wessman, A., Deckers, P., Heeren, S., Lewis, M., Thomas, S., & A.S. Dobat 2020 (in press). Hobby metal-detecting as participatory heritage: Background, challenges and opportunities of collaborative recording schemes for metal-detector (and other public) finds. Heritage & Society 2020.

Topical Issue on Aspects of Non-professional Metal Detecting in Europe in Open Archaeology 2/1 (2016) for different perspectives on the phenomenon of private metal detecting.


Gruppi archeologici d’Italia

The European Public Finds Recording Network

The EAA Community on the Illicit Trade in Cultural Material

The portable antiquities recording portal for Denmark (DIME)

The portable antiquities scheme for England and Wales (PAS)

The portable antiquities scheme recording portal for the Netherlands (PAN)

The portable antiquities recording portal for Finland (SuALT/FindSampo)

Portable Antiquities Advisory Group 2017. Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England & Wales (2017 Revision). London: PAAG.

Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands 2019. Gedragscode en regels voor verantwoord gebruik van de metaaldetector in Nederland. Amsterdam/Amersfoort.

Faro 2005. Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society, Faro, 27.X.2005 (Council of Europe Treaty No. 199).