The state's plan to allow a hoard of coins found in a church to pass into private hands would set a dangerous precedent, experts from the Heritage Board said this week.
The trove in question was found two years ago in Risti church in Harju County and consists of 1,200 coins from the 13th to 18th centuries. The ownership of the coins has been debated ever since, but signals from Rein Lang's Culture Ministry are that he is prepared to grant the Risti congregation's request that the coins be returned to them. The proposal has conservation specialists in a lather.
The Heritage Act, which dates in its present form from 1925, states that ownerless finds of cultural value belong to the state. Valter Lang (no relation), an archeology professor at the University of Tartu who serves on the Heritage Board, is one of the experts who recently signed an open letter to Minister Rein Lang. He argues that it would be specious to claim that all of the coins were donated expressly to the church but slipped off collection plates, and that many of the coins likely had ceremonial and archeological value.
"We don't know whether people lost the coins between cracks in the floorboards or were left as offerings from burials under the floor. In no case can it said that the coins should belong to Harju-Risti congregation," Lang told ETV.
The supervisor of archaeological work at Harju-Risti church, Villu Kadakas, said that the coins were found scattered.
"They included some coins where people missed the collection plate, accidentally, but there were certainly some that were sacrificed for funerals, but have ended up in a higher layer - floor level - due to later excavation."
With additional archeological work coming up in many other churches, archeologists are concerned about a precedent.
"If we set a precedent for one petitioner, then we will probably see a long string of others, from manor owners and townhouse owners, if some lawyer can demonstrate that the current policy is discriminatory to land owners who don't have a building on the land," said Kadakas.
Heritage Board director general Kalev Uustalu told ETV that the latest status is that the coins from the church and some potsherds are in state possession and state ownership. "To my knowledge, no document or petition has been received from the Heritage Board or Ministry of Culture on the basis of which anyone could claim the find for themselves."
Rein Lang is in the US this week and could not be reached for clarification.
If the church should end up with the treasure, the Risti congregation says they would be prepared to deposit the coins in the Harju County Museum until such time as the church has the proper conditions for displaying them.
Indeed, a sticking point for Risti pastor Annika Laats is the "centralization" of antiquities in Estonia. "The place for local historical treasures is not so much in centralized museums and repositories in the capital but they should be displayed, where possible, in their original environment," she told ETV.