A new British comedy tells the story of a group of amateur treasure hunters. The Detectorists – the name derives from the metal detectors used by the characters – stars Mackenzie Crook (who you might recall as Gareth in the original UK version of hit comedy The Office). His motley crew thinks it has stumbled on the Sutton-Hoo-style burial hoard of a seventh century Saxon king and the race is on to beat rival hunters to the gold.
In reviewing the series for The Spectator magazine, James Delingpole explains the economics of scouring for ancient booty.
“The deal with finding a hoard is this: you get to keep half its value; the landowner gets the other half — all paid for by the government according to a fair price decided by a Treasure Valuation Committee. It’s one of those rare corners of the English legal system where things still actually work,” Delingpole writes.
Over in China treasure hunters have a tougher time, as was made clear in news last week that a man called Li Lei had unearthed a 3,000-year old sword in Shaanxi province.
He wrapped it up in newspaper and sent it to Danfeng county’s cultural law enforcement unit. There, it was verified that the bronze artefact was forged in the ancient Kingdom of Chu (during the Warring States period). In fact, it is a superb specimen, retaining its sharp blade (in a telling example of his advanced craftsmanship, the swordsmith seems to have had made it resistant to corrosion with a salt oxidation treatment).
So what did Li Lei get for this prized find? Well, not very much. The government gave him a certificate plus a financial reward of Rmb500 ($81).
The cement factory worker had come across the sword in a pile of clay that his firm was processing at the plant. His colleagues thought him mad for handing it in to the authorities. Local collectors were already offering to buy it for Rmb100,000 and it might have fetched a much higher price.
But Li says that he knew the law. As an item of cultural heritage, he had no claim on the sword: it belongs to the Chinese state.
A lively online debate soon ensued. “He is a good guy, but the government is a bit stingy,” commended one contributor. “Now that everyone knows that turning over a sword is rewarded with Rmb500, greedy people may take a risk and sell items on the black market in future, which is an intangible loss for our heritage conservation efforts,” another warned.
A legally-minded netizen said the status of the object was clearcut: “The law provides that unearthed cultural relics all belong to the state.”
From an archeological point of view, he saw merit in this approach: “If the finder of an expensive artefect becomes its owner, the consequence would be masses of Chinese rushing out to dig up graves.” Havoc would ensue, and much might get damaged.
Li’s course of action was also judged the safest – albeit not the most lucrative: “If you do not hand things over and you are found out, you will be punished. If you sell them, you commit the serious crime of reselling the national heritage. Even if you hide it, someone may see and report you to the police. And if you are determined to sell, you’ll pay a large amount of hush money. So weighing the pros and cons, you can only hand it over.”
China News Service thought that the case had revealed the absurdity of the current reward scheme. It felt that by offering a more “reasonable” sum, the state would encourage people to hand in more of the cultural relics still buried in China’s soil.
Nor are the state’s ownership claims limited to the subterranean domain. As we pointed out in WiC183, finding meteorite rock doesn’t result in much reward either. Once meteorite fragments land on Chinese territory, they are also deemed to become the property of the state.
As one netizen pointed out Li’s case was a reminder of an underlying fact of life in China: “Our country is still dominated by public ownership.”
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