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.