Suppose for a moment that you’re a construction contractor. After browsing excavators for sale, you buy one and have it deployed on site. It seems to be a normal day–that is, until the backhoe strikes something unexpected while digging the foundation. It’s strange and looks really old; it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Upon close examination, you realise that it’s a potentially priceless ancient artefact.
But you’re not an expert. A problem now brews: what should you do with the artefact that you’ve found? Should you keep it and do whatever you want since you’re the discoverer? Or should you report to the authorities immediately?
Accidental Discoveries: Finders Keepers?
Accidental archaeological discoveries are nothing new. Just four years ago, the remains of King Richard III was found in the most nondescript place possible—underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. Richard III was the last English king to die in battle, in 1485. The king’s body was previously thought to be lost forever.
Any archaeological artefact is classified as ‘cultural property’. This makes ownership discussions go on for years on end. Varying laws within each specific locale, including countries, exist and have a say on who gets to own a cultural property after its discovery. But in New Zealand, the Antiquities Act of 1975 mandates that any discovery be reported to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in 28 days. It also says that any item found after April 1, 1976 is automatically owned by The Crown.
Since you’re no expert, you can’t say for sure if what you found is a priceless artefact. The most obvious course of action is to seek an archaeologist immediately. Fortunately, these people aren’t hard to find. They’re often holed up in history and archaeology departments of local universities, to start with. You can also visit a nearby museum or contact the archaeologist’s office.
No one else in the world possesses specific expertise. An archaeologist can roughly assess what the artefact is, as well as its age and what part of history it comes from. Keep in mind that a potential find is useless until its authenticity is verified. But then, the law often decides who to keep it. In that regard, you may still have a bit of stake in its popularity—after all, you’re the discoverer. Your name might be included in the books alongside your find.