Treasure Hunting in Spain

I moved to Madrid, Spain in the 1980’s when metal detecting to hunt treasure was not very well known, and it was legal. My oldest son and I became interested in searching for old coins, with the hope of one day finding an ancient Roman coin. Out first day out, looking in a plowed field, we found a coin from the 1800’s. Soon after we found a coin from the 1600’s. These coins were not worth much money, but they were still our treasure, as they represented OUR finds, and time spent together. Later still, my son found our first ancient coin – a Celtiberian coin, a Bolskan minted in Huesca, dated between 150 and 100 BC. It was an emotional event – to find a coin over 2000 years old, dated to Before Christ!

In June 1985, Spain passed a new law to protect its patrimony which made prospecting or hunting coins and artifacts illegal. But in practice it was not enforced for years to come. For example, a year or two later we were still detecting, and often the farmer whose plowed field we were in, or some passing Guardia Civil police would stop us and ask what we were doing. We would reply that we were searching for old coins and buttons and the like, and we were then urged on with luck. Sometimes we would be asked what kind of luck we had so far, and if we had indeed been lucky we would be able to show some of our results to the farmer or the police. But again, we were always urged to search on.

One day we were searching in a field near Talavera de la Reina, where a lake had been drained. We were finding lead musket balls, larger iron grape shot, buttons, and even several broken iron triggers – there must have been some defective muskets there! These were all from the War of Independence in the early 1800’s when the British were helping Spain fight against Napoleon. The British call the war the Peninsular War. A pair of Guardia Civil policemen came by and asked what we were doing. We replied that we were searching for things from the War of Independence, and proceeded to show them some of our finds. They were surprised and told us to search on, with luck.

Over the years the public, and the police, began to develop a deeper appreciation for their patrimony and treasure hunting began to be looked down on. This was partly due to the abuse of the use of metal detectors to loot and pillage archeological sites – sites known to be important although not yet excavated, as well as sites that had been excavated or were even in the process of being excavated. The buying and selling of antiquities also began to be frowned upon. While artifacts were openly displayed and sold in the 1980’s, in monthly coin conventions, and in the coin and stamp flea market on Sundays in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor – this ended with raids on a coin convention and on the Plaza Mayor. In these raids, archeological artifacts were seized. Although many of the artifacts were later returned to the vendor that they had been seized from, the process to gain their return often took years. But the message was clear – not only was it now frowned upon to search for coins with metal detectors, but the trade in antiquities was pursued as well. The trade in ancient coins remained acceptable, up to this day.

I gave up treasure hunting in Spain in the 1990’s and also moved back to the USA after living in Madrid for ten years. The situation deteriorated more and more as the years passed. In 2007, more than a decade after I had returned to the USA, there was a huge raid, in February 2007. Over 200 Guardia Civil police arrested 52 people and seized over 300,000 artifacts and coins. And not only were treasure hunters arrested, but intermediaries who bought and sold artifacts, as well as some collectors were among those arrested. You can read more about this raid in the July 2007 article I wrote and published in Celator magazine – here. Now, even collecting was frowned upon and prosecuted. My detecting for coins ended in the 1990’s while living in Spain and my collecting soon after as well.

The collecting became depressing not only because it was now considered illegal. But because also I had most of my collection stolen. While on sick leave in the USA, I had entrusted my collection to my boss and coworkers. After its return, and passing through one more set of hands (my wife’s), many valuable items were missing. Then, I mailed to myself most of what remained, through the APO mail in New York City. Only when the box arrived at my house in the USA, the box had been broken into, the collection taken, a form letter apologizing for the damaged parcel placed inside, and the box wrapped in a plastic bag before delivery to me.

To reinforce the bad taste of collecting, years later after purchasing a couple ancient Roman amulets, with a connecting flight in the USA, upon arrival home my suitcase contained a form card advising me that the TSA had inspected my suitcase. Only the inspector evidently needed my amulets more than I did, because they were now missing. I had collected photos of artifacts, while living in Spain, from private collections whose owners would allow me to take photos with the understanding I would not share who they were. Several of these photographed artifacts are the object of some of the artifacts contained in my treasure hunting novel.

So the protection of the patrimony and heritage of Spain was an evolution, not only in law, but in the awareness and appreciation of the general public as well as law enforcement. In 1988 the government had created a special branch of the Guardia Civil called SEPRONA (Servicio de Protección de la Naturaleza – Service for the Protection of Nature). And that was their primary objective – to protect nature and the environment. But in the 1990’s as more and more appreciation for the archeological patrimony came to be, SEPRONA took on the goal of stopping the use of metal detectors for treasure hunting. Riding their dirt bike motorcycles through the countryside, they were now on the lookout for treasure hunters.

In March 2013 it was reported in the Spanish news media that a 60 year old retired man had been arrested and over 4000 artifacts seized. Depending on which article you read, he had been treasure hunting with a metal detector, in known archeological sites, for 15 to 30 years. And he was connected to the illegal export of three Celtiberian helmets, that were complete and in good condition, and dated to the 4th to 2nd century BC. What really hurts is that in all the Celtiberian necropolises excavated legally in Spain, only fragments of 3 helmets in poor condition have been located. They had been broken and deformed in ancient times as part of the burial ritual.

In 2008 a German museum notified the Spanish government that there were these helmets in Germany and that they had probably been illegally excavated and illegally exported. Munich authorities seized the helmets and requested that the Spanish government make an official claim to the helmets in the next three months. However, there was no response from the Spanish government and the helmets were auctioned multiple times, in 2009, 2010, and 2012. The helmets had gone from Spain to Switzerland to Germany, and then in 2012 ended up in Christie’s auction house in London. But at Christie’s they were described as Greek helmets, not Celtiberian. They went for hundreds of thousands of euros.

The archeologists note that the items loose half their historical value when they are illegally excavated from their context. The Guardia Civil notes (after years of evolution in the appreciation for national patrimony and the damage done by treasure hunters – here noted in 2013) that 400 to 500 archeological sites are pillaged and looted each year, 75% of those with the aid of metal detectors.

In December 2013 two men were arrested looting the important archeological site of Tiermes. They had parked three and a half kilometers away, were hunting treasure at night, and had made over 400 holes in their search. The authorities were dismayed with the important loss of historical information, even though artifacts were recovered. The Guardia Civil found a hidden safe under the hood of the car, and in the car were topographic maps of various archeological sites, including Tiermes, with routes of access marked. In October 2016, both were sentenced to four years of prison, and there was a fine of 150,580 euros ($177,274 as of this writing). However, it is my understanding that these two have yet to begin serving their sentences.

Possible improvements

I believe that the situation could be improved if the laws were changed to allow hobbyists to search for coins and artifacts in locations that were not known archeological sites. They would have to get permission and acknowledge the laws. Then, when items were found, they would be reviewed by authorities and important items would be relegated to archeologists and museums. But the finder would be reimbursed the fair market value. Most items would not be of important interest and would remain in the possession of the finder. What’s more, the finder would legally be able to export and sell to someone in another country. This system works well in places like England and Serbia. However, this obviously fails to address the looters who enter archeological sites like Tiermes. And this methodology requires resources from the government, and many governments find that spending money on archeology is not a top priority.