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22 February 2009
'Nighthawks' raid Britain's archaeological heritage

Britain's archaeological heritage is being plundered by metal detector users who are illegally raiding protected sites across the country, it has been claimed. 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 'woefully insufficient'. 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. Even in the case when the finds are retrieved, the context of how and where exactly the finds were found has been lost, significantly diminishing their historical value.
     Nighthawking is the search and removal of antiquities from the ground using metal detectors without the permission of landowners or where the practice is banned. The problem emerged in the early 1970s as metal detecting first became a popular hobby and has become increasingly prevalent. 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.
     The study found only one in seven landowners who discovered they had been targeted by illegal metal detector users informed the authorities. Researchers also found about one in every 20 archaeological excavation sites are targeted by thieves. More than a third of sites attacked by illegal metal detectorists  were scheduled monuments, key sites of historical interest. Only 26 cases resulted in legal action, with most offenders handed a small fine which in one case was just £38. The crime is most prevalent in central and eastern England but the survey found it was almost unheard of in Northern Ireland. Counties with high incidences of nighthawking included Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. The report also recommended that antiquities sellers should be forced by law to prove the provenance of their goods and called on auction websites to monitor more closely items put up for sale more.
     In the meantime, a leading metal detectorist has reacted furiously to claims by English Heritage. Norman Smith, organises metal-detecting rallies around the country that are attended by up to 400 people, always with archaeologists in attendance. Mr Smith accused English Heritage of being misleading and said: "Illegal metal detecting is now virtually non-existent." He said he helped with the survey, carried out for English Heritage by Oxford Archaeology, and that it found the problem to be minimal. "English Heritage are notorious for anti-detecting feelings and have unsuccessfully campaigned for years to have metal detecting banned. Most metal detectorists record their finds on a voluntary basis with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and have recorded over 330,000 in the ten years since the scheme originated. But inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage, Keith Miller said: "To say the problem has gone is absolutely untrue." He added: "We are not against all detectorists – we have worked with them and even funded their work. It is only the illegal aspect we want to stop."

Sources: The Independent, Times online, BBC News (16 February 2009), The Northern Echo (17 February 2009)

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