‘Nighthawks’

Between 2007 and 2008,  English Heritage was commissioned by Oxford Archaeology to conduct a study into the crime of Nighthawking,  the illegal search for and removal of antiquities from the ground by criminals using metal detectors. The resulting reports are making the national news:

‘Nighthawks’ raid archaeology digs

Britain’s archaeological heritage is being plundered by illegal metal detector users who face little danger of being caught, a new report has said.

The first comprehensive national survey of its kind revealed thieves armed with state-of-the-art equipment are raiding some of the nation’s most sensitive heritage sites.

Researchers found knowledgeable criminals, dubbed nighthawks, are using auction websites such as eBay to cash in on what was once an illicit hobby.

Police said some thieves have formed loosely-connected networks who trade information, often in online forums, about new and vulnerable sites.

One senior Kent officer said there have been cases of farmers being threatened after confronting groups of men trespassing on their land at night.

English Heritage, who commissioned the study, said many stolen items are worth very little, but their valuable historical context is lost for ever.

But although the threat of nighthawking remains high, experts said the chances of prosecution remain at an all time low and penalties are low.

Sir Barry Cunliffe, English Heritage chairman, called for better guidance for police and a national database to accurately portray the extent of the problem.

He said: “Responsible metal detecting provides a valuable record of history, but illegal activities bring responsible ones into disrepute. Nighthawkers, by hoarding the finds or selling them on without recording or provenance, are thieves of valuable archaeological knowledge that belongs to us all.”

English Heritage said 240 police reports of raids between 1995 and 2008 are likely to be just a fraction of the true scale of the under-reported crime.

From The Guardian:
The study found the practice to be most prevalent in eastern and central regions, such as Norfolk, Essex and Oxfordshire, which are rich in sites ranging from the prehistoric to medieval eras.
More than 200 raids were reported between 1995 and 2008, more than a third of them affecting scheduled ancient monuments. Archaeologists believe this figure represents the tip of the iceberg. To their despair, in the handful of cases that have gone to court the thieves usually received just a caution, or a fine as low as £38. Not surprisingly, only 14% of landowners bother to report this type of crime, knowing that unless the nighthawkers are caught red-handed the most the criminals are likely to be accused of is trespass, according to the survey.
At Buckinghamshire county museum, Brett Thorn, curator of archaeology, tells the story of a set of rare British bronze-age axes, bought in the Netherlands, on eBay, by a metallurgist who paid £205. They were eventually donated to the museum by the buyer, but Thorn says information about the site where they were found would have been the real treasure.

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2 comments on “‘Nighthawks’

  1. garybrun says:

    The ‘Nighthawking Survey’ commissioned by English Heritage

    You may recently have received or read the report resulting from the so-called ‘Nighthawking Survey’, originally proposed by the PAS, and carried out by Oxford Archaeology for English Heritage. The report contains statements relating to the UK Detector Finds Database (UKDFD) that are factually incorrect, or misleading by virtue of the omission of pertinent information. No member of the UKDFD recording scheme was consulted at any time regarding the statements, and relevant information, readily available on the UKDFD website, would appear to have been completely disregarded. Such elementary failures to make adequate enquiries before drawing conclusions inevitably raise doubts about the validity of the report’s findings in respect of its specific investigation remit.

    The statements concerned are contained within clause 3.2.20 of the report, and each is addressed below.

    1. The report states that the UKDFD “.only records the location of finds to parish level.”

    The statement is incorrect. The UKDFD provides for the recording of finds to the highest level of accuracy that a recorder is willing or able to provide.
    Recording to parish level is merely the minimum level of accuracy required for material to be eligible.

    2. The report states that the UKDFD “.does not pass information onto HERs and is therefore of limited value to archaeological research and management.”

    The statement is entirely lacking in balance, and appears contrived to portray the UKDFD in a negative manner. In particular, it fails to mention the fact that, prior to its launch, the UKDFD offered a facility to transfer records directly to the PAS database. In fact, during the UKDFD development phase, a considerable amount of time was spent making such a transfer of records technically viable. Had the PAS not chosen to decline this offer, UKDFD records would automatically have been passed to the HERs.

    Furthermore, having declined the invitation – a move that some might reasonably regard as irresponsible – the PAS (along with bodies that seek to restrict the metal-detecting hobby) introduced a Code of Practice, which, by implication, brands those detectorists who record with the UKDFD as irresponsible.

    3. The report states that “Some believe that the PAS database and the information that is passed to the HERs is used to further restrict the land available for detecting, others believe (erroneously) that the PAS does not record post-medieval finds. The UK Detector Finds Database (UKDFD) was therefore set up by detectorists as an alternative to the PAS.”

    The mission statement of the UKDFD clearly sets out its aims, which are considerably more wide-ranging than the final sentence of this statement concludes. The concerns that detectorists have regarding restrictions being placed on their hobby are also far wider than the statement implies.

    See also http://www.ukdfd.co.uk/pages/our-hobbys-detractors.html

    Gary Brun

    UKDFD Administrator

  2. saesferd says:

    Thank you for this Gary. The activities of the unscrupulous mean that, unfortunately, all metal-detectorists are being tarred with the same brush. The UKDFD mission statement is at http://www.ukdfd.co.uk/pages/mission.html. There are post-1650 objects recorded on PAS.

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