Archaeological collection discovered after relic hunter’s death

An unusual collection of over 3,000 archaeological items was discovered two years ago in a Prague apartment whose owner died in a fire. Archaeologists who have examined the collection say it contains some unique artefacts – with very little scientific value because vital information about their origin is missing. Experts complain that people with metal detectors who dig for treasures of the past are causing more harm than they might think.

When a young man died in his Prague apartment two years ago after a cigarette set his bed on fire, the firemen who came to help made an unusual discovery. The man’s one-bedroom apartment was chock-full of strange-looking metal objects, obviously from prehistoric times. As the amateur archaeologist had no relatives, experts from the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Archaeological Institute were asked to go through more than 3000 items which would be worth millions on the black market. Miroslav Dobeš of the Archaeological Institute explains what some of the most precious pieces are.

“First I’d like to mention this spectacle-shaped pendant. It is one of the oldest copper objects in Central Europe - we are talking here about the period around 4000 years BC. Roughly ten such pendants have been uncovered in Bohemia, Moravia and Western Slovakia. Since we don’t know where it comes from, its information value is practically non-existent although its material value is incalculable.”

The archaeologists searched the apartment for any records that would show where the artefacts came from, but found nothing about the origin of all the bowls, cups, clips, bracelets, pins, rings and axes. Amateur treasure hunters don’t care about the analytical part of the job and dig wherever their detectors start to beep. This is one of the reasons why professional archaeologists see red when they come across these people at work. Martin Kuna is the deputy director of the Archaeological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Martin Kuna
“Another reason is that most of these finds eventually end up in private collections where they lose most of their information, or scientific, value. And few are perhaps aware of yet another reason why using metal detectors for this purpose is harmful – when large amounts of metal objects are regularly brought to light, there are simply not enough archaeologists to examine them properly.”

Experts warn that the case of the dead collector with a huge heap of anonymous items is just the tip of the iceberg. An estimated 10,000 metal detectors are currently used in the pursuit of this hobby in the Czech Republic, and hundreds of thousands of treasures are thought to be stashed in private collections. Some treasure hunters cooperate with museums and only explore locations designated by experts, but on the whole, Martin Kuna says, something should be done to prevent people with metal detectors from causing more damage in the future.

“The law is too weak in this respect. Even when you catch one of those people at the site with a detector and a golden coin in his pocket, you cannot prove that he dug it out right there. Perhaps access to archaeological sites for people with metal detectors should be banned, and perhaps users of metal detectors should be registered.”

The fate of the collection of more than 3,000 items will be decided by lawyers. Experts from the Prague Archaeological Institute suggest that after all the finds have been documented, they should become part of a comparative study collection at an archaeology department of some Czech university.