Sometimes great historical finds are made by everyday people. Recently, I came across the story of a man who discovered a massive, and historically very significant, Roman villa — while digging in his garden in England to lay some wire. It’s easy for an American such as myself to forget about the vast amount of history hidden just beneath the surface of normal life elsewhere in the world. In the northeastern USA, you might hear about someone finding a bullet from the 1700s, or maybe a Native American arrowhead, but for the most part, archaeology for much of the United States abruptly stops at Jamestown (with some notable exceptions).
But throughout the “older world” countries, history can pop up just about anywhere. A National Geographic article from last year details just some of the amazing finds that have been made while digging the foundations for buildings in London. Many of these extensive building projects have to hire historical experts, just in case they come across something. According to another National Geographic article, “Nearly 90 percent of archaeological artifacts in the U.K. are found by amateur treasure hunters with metal detectors.”
And it’s not just England either. Ever since the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by shepherd boys in 1947 in Israel, people have stumbled across historical sites. If it wasn’t for these lucky, ordinary people, we wouldn’t know about the Lascaux Cave paintings in France or the iconic terracotta warriors of China. The levels of history buried under the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano was discovered by accident by a priest trying to repair part of the modern church. Even the Rosetta Stone was found by accident by Napoleon’s soldiers. Mental floss does a great roundup on some of the top historical finds by average people (you can read it here).
Of course, every country has its own rules for what to do when someone stumbles across a historic find. In Great Britain, most finds are automatically the property of the British government, and the finder can only keep it if the British Museum decides that it’s not good enough for their collection (although there is often compensation for the finder and the land owner). On the other side of the spectrum, the American emphasis on property law ensures that most (but not all) discoveries made on private land in the USA belong to the landowner. Maritime finds have their own sets of rules. If the sunken treasure is old enough — and in international waters, the “law of finds” could mean that the entire wreck belongs to the finder. So, keep your eyes open. You never know when you might be walking by the next great discovery.
UPDATE: In another great example of ordinary people making fantastic archaeological discoveries, Shortly after