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Treasure-hunting in Ireland - its rise and fall.

Recent decades have seen remarkable finds of metal objects from Irish soil -- and equally remarkable consequences when some of those objects have surfaced on the open antiquities market.

The passing of the National Monuments Act in 1930 reflected the determination of the new Irish Free State to ensure the protection of its archaeological heritage. The legislation regulated, by licence, the excavation, export and conservation of archaeological objects. It also required that finds be reported to the National Museum. Statutory protection was given to National Monuments and the Commissioners of Public Works were empowered to place preservation orders on sites.

The Act was amended in 1954, partly in response to the illegal export of an 8th-century reliquary, known as the Emly Shrine, which was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.

The sale of cheap metal-detectors, during the 1970s, introduced a new threat. The law did not prohibit the use of the devices to search for objects, although a licence was needed in order to dig for archaeological objects thus found. The fact that offenders faced a fine of only Ir|pounds~10 encouraged people to ignore the law and made enforcement difficult.

There is evidence that many enthusiasts adhered, initially, to a self-imposed code of practice, which required that archaeological sites be avoided and finds of historical interest be reported. Early metal-detected finds, reported to the National Museum of Ireland, were found mostly on ploughed land or locations away from archaeological sites. By 1980 the trend had changed and it became clear to the National Museum authorities that most metal-detected finds were being located on archaeological sites.

The discovery of a hoard of early church treasure at Derrynaflan, Co. Tipperary in 1980 accelerated this trend and popularized metal-detecting. Of 8th- and 9th-century AD date, the hoard consisted of a chalice, paten, strainer and bronze basin. It was uncovered within a large monastic enclosure, a portion of which was a protected National Monument, by a man and his son, using a metal-detector. A finder's reward offered by the State was rejected as insufficient and the finders embarked on legal proceedings to secure the return of the find. In July 1986 the High Court ruled that the find, or its value (IR|pounds~5.5m), should be returned to the finders. The State appealed to the Supreme Court, which delivered its judgement in December 1987. The treasure was declared to be State property and the finders received a reward of |pounds~50,000. The ruling extended the State's ownership to include all antiquities of national importance, where the true owner (the person who lost or deposited the object, or their heir) was not known.

By the mid 1980s, although it was realized that treasure-hunting had become a lucrative business, the official response remained uncoordinated. Throughout the early 1980s the National Museum of Ireland acquired metal-detected finds, often via middle-men. Most appeared to have been found on archaeological sites. In 1986 the Museum became aware of an 8th-century bookshrine, found in Lough Kinale, Co. Longford and a processional cross, of similar age, believed to have been found in Tully Lough, Co. Roscommon. Both site are located in the Irish midlands. By then it was suspected that an organized treasure-hunting network was operating in Ireland, linked to private collectors and dealers. Concerted action to counter the menace was determined upon.

The first step taken was the setting-up towards the end of 1986 of a committee, composed of personnel from the Arts and Culture Section, Department of the Taoiseach (The Prime Minister's Department) and the National Museum of Ireland. Its first objective was to ensure the acquisition by the Museum of the Lough Kinale bookshrine, the discovery of which had recently become known. This objective was realized quickly and the Committee, turned its attention to the wider problem. It was expanded to include representatives from the National Monuments Branch, Office of Public Works; Garda (Police) Headquarters and the Chief State Solicitor's Office.

An analysis of the situation determined that progress would need to be made in a number of areas if a successful outcome was to be achieved. The first requirement was good intelligence. Linked to this was the need to inform the general public of the damage being done to the heritage by the activities of treasure-hunters. Metal-detecting enjoyed a favourable press and the case against it had to be explained patiently, with particular stress placed on the damage done to the heritage. It was believed that a well-informed public would be better disposed towards providing information about the activities of treasure-hunters. It was also felt that landowners would become reluctant to allow people to search their land using metal-detectors.

This was a long-term strategy and more immediate means were necessary to obtain information about the current situation. For operational reasons, it would be unwise to provide details of the precise steps taken. National Museum of Ireland personnel, who played an active role, encountered many problems: substantial bribes were offered to induce them to assist the treasure-hunters; threats were issued; personal property was vandalized; blackmail was attempted and a campaign of vilification of certain officials was embarked upon. The work of An Garda Siochana (Police) was outstanding and ensured the success of the effort. Specialized assistance was provided on occasion by the Army Ranger Unit (an elite anti-terrorism force).

When the Committee was set up, the introduction of new legislation was already in train. The Committee made a number of new recommendations which it believed would result in the law being enforced effectively. In July 1987 the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1987 was enacted. Under its provisions the use of metal-detectors to search for archaeological objects, other than by licence, was made illegal. Police powers were included in the act which would enable An Garda Siochana conduct searches, under warrant, for looted antiquities.

It was not only inland archaeological sites which were the subject of attention. A large number of Spanish Armada and other historic wrecks are situated around the Irish coast, and it was known that some of these had been looted. The new Act gave automatic protection to all wrecks over 100 years old. Anyone wishing to dive on any underwater archaeological site or historic wreck must first obtain a licence. This would only allow a diver to visit the location: he would not be entitled to remove anything or otherwise interfere with the site. Penalties for offences were increased to a fine of Ir|pounds~50,000 and a year in prison.

The question of the ownership of archaeological objects had been resolved by the Supreme Court ruling on the Derrynaflan find. This opened up the route whereby civil actions could be initiated to recover looted property.

Investigations revealed that there were a number of treasure-hunting groups active, most notably in the midlands, where the richest sites are located. The favourite sites to be targeted were early medieval settlements, on artificial islands known as crannogs. Many of the objects located on such sites lay underwater, either because of erosion of the sites or because objects had been lost in the water in antiquity. In order to recover these the treasure-hunters had trained as divers. Some travelled abroad for training, to ensure that there was no record in Ireland of their diving abilities. Ancient river fords were another favourite target. An investigation was conducted at one of these sites by the National Museum, assisted by an Irish army diving unit. It revealed that the treasure-hunters were using a moveable rope grid, 10,000 sq. m in area, to assist them to search for antiquities. Elsewhere, there were groups searching monuments located mainly on farmland. In order to avoid detection, they usually operated at night.

All the groups maintained close contact and swapped intelligence. Regular meetings were held to discuss the strategies they might adopt to counter official actions being taken against them. Black-market dealers and private collectors, some of whom were themselves treasure-hunters, participated in these activities. The looters were well equipped and well researched. Equipment included sophisticated metal-detectors and other remote-sensing devices, sub-aqua gear and boats. To locate archaeological sites, aerial photographs were consulted and on occasion treasure-hunters undertook their own aerial reconnaissance. Library research was undertaken and most treasure-hunters had built up their own reference libraries. Of particular interest were monuments inventories, which were used as 'hit lists' by the looters. It is ironic that publications designed to assist the planning authorities to protect monuments from destruction came to be abused in this manner.

There appeared to be close contacts between treasure-hunters operating in all parts of Ireland. In order to co-ordinate official efforts, a liaison committee representing the State archaeological agencies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was set up. Meetings were held in both Dublin and Belfast which ensured that there was a comprehensive approach to the problem throughout the island.

Not all the people involved in metal-detecting or in wreck-diving could be characterized as hardened treasure-hunters. Many had a genuine interest in the past and were not motivated by financial greed. Objection to their activities was not directed against the technology they employed but against its unsupervised and ill-advised use. A dialogue was opened up with the Metal Detecting Society of Ireland and with interested members of the diving community. It was pointed out that the authorities would be prepared to license well thought-out and properly supervised projects, whereby the interests of enthusiasts could be catered for.

It took some years for this approach to prove successful, largely because of suspicion about the motives and intentions of the authorities. Eventually, however, large numbers of metal-detector enthusiasts and treasure-hunting divers came to see that there were no real alternatives to working in co-operation with the State bodies. That this was so was due partly to the success enjoyed in countering illegal activities, prosecuting wrong-doers and recovering looted antiquities, some of which had been illegally exported. Much publicity surrounded these events, particularly when the recovery of objects from abroad was involved. Thousands of looted items were recovered in Ireland and material was also recovered from Britain, Europe and as far afield as Australia and the United States. Following a report that the Tully Lough processional cross had been offered for $1.75 million to the Getty Museum, Malibu, California, steps were taken to ensure that it was not exported. On Good Friday 1990, the cross was placed in the custody of the National Museum and legal proceedings were entered by the State to have the ownership determined.

In October 1990, the Taoiseach intervened to ensure the recovery of a Bronze Age gold collar, illegally removed from the jurisdiction and offered for sale by Christies of London.

Over a number of years, Museum officers and An Garda Siochana recovered decorated stonework stolen from protected monastic sites at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, Iniscealtra, Co. Clare, and Carrowntemple, Co. Sligo. The theft of these objects, some of which were destined for illegal export to the United States, resulted in a number of prosecutions. International publicity surrounded the recovery, in 1991, of Early Christian carvings which were offered for sale in the United States. The carvings -- decorated Early Christian grave-stones and a cross-inscribed pillar stone -- had been stolen by a treasure-hunting gang from an ancient monastery on the island of Inchcleraun, Lough Ree, Co. Longford. The site is a National Monument. The theft was the most ambitious operation known to have been attempted. The main character involved was Peter Kenny, a retired sailor who used his own boat to transport the material to Miami, Florida. From there, Kenny transported it by road to Boston, where he attempted a sale to Boston College. Mr Kenny's activities had been watched closely by the authorities and an elaborate 'sting' operation was mounted by the FBI, assisted by members of An Garda Siochana, the National Museum of Ireland and the Office of Public Works National Monuments Branch. After his arrest, it was with great surprise that Peter Kenny learned that Mr Ed Clarke, the wealthy patron of Boston College, with whom he had sought to negotiate a sale price of $5 million was, in fact, a senior FBI officer. Simultaneously, a second 'sting' operation was mounted by An Garda Siochana, which led to the arrest, in Ireland, of Peter Kenny's associates.

At present it is believed that the organized looting of archaeological sites, for personal gain, has ceased in Ireland. A great quantity of material has been recovered and is undergoing study. Criminal prosecutions are pending and a number of civil actions await hearing by the High Court. Further legislation is planned, to seal off any loop-holes in the law. These efforts are now praised by the general public who are no longer convinced by the arguments put forward in defence of treasure-hunting. The Metal Detecting Society now works in co-operation with the authorities and its members have assisted archaeologists on a number of important projects. During 1990 a new organization came into being. Named the Irish Underwater Archaeology Research Team it includes among its membership a number of former treasure-hunters. The organization has been officially involved in underwater excavations and surveys and has been in receipt of large sums of public money.

The scenario for the future is an optimistic one, but vigilance will always be necessary. As long as collectors are willing to pay large sums to acquire archaeological objects, a threat to the heritage will exist. Every government has a responsibility to ensure the protection of its national heritage. Co-operation between governments is necessary to ensure that illegally-exported objects can be returned to their place of origin. This need is widely recognized, and although many problems will need to be overcome before effective international co-operation is fully possible, the trend would appear to be in that direction. On 16 January 1992, Ireland was one of around 20 countries to sign the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage. The signing of the Convention represented an important step on the road to curtailing illegal excavations and the international trade in stolen or looted antiquities.
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Author:Kelly, Eamonn P.
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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