Treasure Hunting in Ireland: Don’t Even Think of It!

Metal detecting has a checkered history in Ireland. Recent government guidelines highlight its all-but-illegal status.

no detectingMillions of people visit Ireland every year, and some of them may pack a metal detector, thinking of enjoying a little stroll and hoping to find some trinkets from the past. Those people should think again, because as revised guidelines from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht make clear, metal detecting is all-but-illegal in Ireland. While it is not illegal to own a metal detector, the guidelines make clear that unless you have a permit from the Department, or are working under the supervision of an archaeologist who has the appropriate permit, it is illegal to use a metal detector to search for historical artifacts (a very broad legal definition that includes most conceivable metal objects that might be under the ground including relatively recent metal trash).

The catch is, you have no idea what the metal object is that makes your detector beep. If you dig it up (even on private land, and with the permission of the landowner) and find it’s a rusty tin can, you might be in the clear (I’m not a lawyer, so consult a professional if for some reason you do plan on a little metal detecting on your Irish vacation). But, if it turned out to be an old coin, you’d probably have just committed a crime (actually, more likely two crimes: using a metal detector to search for antiquities and excavating an historical artifact without permission). Other countries have much more permissive regulations, so metal detecting enthusiasts coming to Ireland from abroad may be accustomed to a very different regulatory environment.

Possession of a metal detector on a protected historical site is completely prohibited, whether or not you’re using it. As there are over 130,000 registered historical sites in Ireland, and the boundaries of some of these sites may be ill-defined — that’s a large area.  Many, if not most, protected areas have no signs posted to that effect. Metal detecting on private land without permission would make one guilty of trespass, and even if you received permission, it’s still illegal to knowingly search for antiquities.

The Derrynaflan Chalice. Discovered with metal detectors on a protected historical site. The legal arguments over ownership of the Chalice and other discoveries led to new legislation to outlaw treasure hunting in Ireland. (Photo credit: Kglavin via wikipedia commons)

The Derrynaflan Chalice. Discovered by two men using metal detectors at a protected historical site. The legal arguments over ownership of the Chalice and other discoveries led to new legislation to outlaw treasure hunting in Ireland. (Photo credit: Kglavin via wikipedia commons)

The reason for these laws is a history of professional treasure hunters who pillaged Ireland’s historical sites in the 1970s and ‘80s, damaging the sites by disturbing and destroying any adjacent non-metal artifacts and archaeological evidence, and selling many rare ancient treasures on the black market. (And, long before that, amateur archaeologists did untold damage to many sites in the 18th and 19th centuries — excavating with dynamite, among other bad ideas.) It took a great deal of coordinated government and Garda effort in the 1980s and ’90s to catch these gangs, recover some of the treasures, and amend the laws to prevent future looting of historical sites that are of international interest.

There are of course mechanisms in the laws to cover the accidental discovery of artifacts in the course of normal agricultural or construction work. All ancient artifacts are the property of the state, and must be turned over to the authorities within 96 hours, regardless of the method of discovery.

So, leave the metal detector at home when you travel to Ireland.



The complete guidelines for metal detector use can be accessed via the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht…



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  1. heretherebespiders’s avatar

    And that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

  2. Lorna’s avatar

    Interesting – I live here and didn’t realise it was all so strict!

    1. Rich’s avatar

      Yes. Can’t say I was ever interested in metal detecting, but I have seen occasional people using them on beaches, etc. Apparently the Guards will arrest people they come across using them, so it is very strict. Good thing, too. Who knows all that was stolen in the past.

    2. stuart’s avatar

      Ok,I get it.surely it should be ok for an Irish person to treasure hunt in there own country.after all its there it better to leave your own countries treasures buried beneath the ground for all time.or at least untill the powers that be decide to send in archaeologists,when there’s a new road or New house’s being built.I’m not saying go out and dig up the place left right and centre.I think you should go out and treasure hunt,in your own country,if you wish to do so.if you find something of value then hand it in and at least claim a nice reward for your hard work.

      1. Rich Rennicks’s avatar

        Hi Stuart,

        I think a lot of the problem is that only a small percentage of the historical artifacts “waiting” to be found are made of metal. Untrained people may unwittingly destroy artifacts of bone, stone, glass, as well as traces of wood, cloth, grains, etc. in the process of digging. The context in which something is found (depth, relation to other items, etc.) can tell archaeologists as much as an artifact itself.

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