The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 106

Issue 106

May / June 2009



Breton hoard of stone axeheads is first for UK

Flint finds point to Scotland's first people

Antiquities Scheme unearths second Roman pan

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Beneath the Sea Special: Part 1
Discovery and work on HMS Victory

Beneath the Sea Special: Part 2
Underwater landscapes and the Swash Channel wreck

THE BIG DIG: Wallingford
Community research project in this historic Oxfordshire town, said to have been founded by King Alfred

The Nighthawing Report
While most metal detectorists give positive contributions to the archaological world, nobody is perfect. Pete Wilson considers tackling the rogues


Proud of all humanity – and Homophobic (Latin or Greek?)

on the web

Recommended websites
Discovering historic landscapes, and a major Gallo-Belgic pottery resource


your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Gill Chitty introduces some recent examples from the CBA's advocacy files


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The Nighthawking Report

People who use metal detectors in search of the past were once dismissed by archaeologists with a mixture of prejudice and fear. Now their positive contributions are clear, but nobody is perfect. Pete Wilson considers tackling the rogues.

Archaeologists and detectorists now work together, to everyone's benefit. In England and Wales detectorists abide by the Treasure Act, report their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and follow the code of practice for responsible metal detecting. Others may follow the new Historic Scotland guidance (Metal Detecting Yes or No?, PDF 268KB), the English Heritage guidance (Our Portable Past, PDF 1.12MB), or the codes of practice from the National Council for Metal Detecting and the Federation of Independent Detectorists.

And then there are the nighthawks. They trespass, or detect on sites such as scheduled monuments where it is illegal. Not only do they steal our common past, but they bring metal detectorists into disrepute. Quite simply, nighthawking is theft.

In 2006 English Heritage, in partnership with others (see end note), commissioned Oxford Archaeology to inquire into the scale of the problem in the UK and Crown Dependencies, and suggest how it might be addressed. The only previous comparable study (Metal Detecting & Archaeology in England, Council for British Archaeology 1995, with funding from English Heritage), focused more narrowly on excavations and scheduled monuments.

Information on the clandestine activities was naturally as hard to come by as it had been in 1995. Many metal detectorists saw the survey as a smoke screen for new legislation restricting their hobby. In fact, it concluded that none was required, except regarding the antiquities trade where the UK has a relatively very lax regime. The existing Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act (1979), Treasure Act (1996) and legislation protecting sites of special scientific interest and other categories are important: but the key to dealing with nighthawking is the Theft Act (1968).

The problem

Incidents Graph
Number of sites nighthawked 1995–2007 by county. The level of incidents outside England is very low, with none at all reported from any of the Crown Dependencies; click for larger image.

The quantity of scheduled monuments reported as being attacked has fallen since 1995 from 1.3% to 0.4%. Archaeological consultancies reporting nighthawking have fallen from 74% to 28% (affecting 3–6% of excavations). However, the national survey may significantly under report the problem. Oxford Archaeology wrote to a sample of farmers in the East Midlands with scheduled monuments on their land: of those that responded, 17% had suffered from nighthawking.

Additionally, many "honeypot" sites continue to be raided. At Icklingham, Suffolk, the findspot of the infamous Icklingham bronzes, 40–50 prosecutions have failed to stem the theft of our common heritage. At the launch of the nighthawking survey at the Society of Antiquaries in London on February 16, the site owner, John Browning, spoke eloquently about his experiences over 30 years of trying to combat nighthawks. Despite support from the police and prosecutors this site, which has produced key evidence for Roman-period Christianity in Britain, continues to suffer.

Icklingham is in the arable east of England – a band from Kent through the Midlands and East Anglia to Yorkshire that bears the brunt of illicit metal detecting. It is also the area that is most productive for responsible detectorists who, particularly through their cooperation with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), have added much new and important data on many periods of our past.

However, the problem extends further. For example at Corbridge, Northumberland, English Heritage has had to employ security guards, working with the local police, to patrol the scheduled arable fields that surround the guardianship area. Fencing and a security guard did not prevent a nighthawk attempting to attack open trenches at the English Heritage excavations on the scheduled Roman villa at Groundwell Ridge, Swindon, directed in 2004 by the writer! An understandable response by some landowners faced with raids on their land and damage to crops, is to ban all metal detectorists.

Yet the information gains from fully reported detecting can be immense – PAS data have been used in many degrees and publications. The remarkable Viking age cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria, was discovered by detectorists who reported their finds to the PAS. The subsequent investigations were a model project in which archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology (North) worked closely with detectorists to investigate this site with funding from English Heritage (feature, Nov 2004).

Nighthawking's negative effects are equally easy to demonstrate. In 2005 a late bronze age hoard – cited as being found in Buckinghamshire – was purchased in the Netherlands. The transaction was reported to the Buckinghamshire finds liaison officer. Under the Treasure Act (Designation) Order 2002, all prehistoric base metal objects from the same find, if two or more are found together, are deemed treasure, so the coroner initiated a police investigation. The sellers in the Netherlands were acting on behalf of the finders, who could not be traced. The buyer allowed the material to be donated to Buckinghamshire County Museum, but the findspot has not been identified and the crucial archaeological information on context has been lost. We are left with a wonderful collection of bronze age material, but not the story that it should be able to tell us.

The survey has shown that, with honourable exceptions, the same issues are encountered across the country whatever the intensity of the threat:

  • Roman sites (for coins) and Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (for quality metal artefacts) are particularly popular with nighthawks
  • There is limited police interest in, or ability to respond to, a non-recordable offence
  • It is difficult to accumulate evidence to sustain prosecutions; when solid evidence is available, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deems the offence unimportant, perceiving nighthawked finds to have low value
  • Where prosecutions succeed the penalties are derisory (often less in real terms than 20 years ago) and rarely are metal detectors, the thief's chief tool, confiscated. Loss of expensive detectors, or even vehicles used to reach sites would send a strong message. ASBOs, although derided in the press, could also have a role
  • Landowners feel that with limited police action and the CPS reluctant to prosecute, there is little point in reporting attacks
  • There is no mechanism to report nighthawking, so instances are under recorded. This applies both to heritage agencies, where nighthawk attacks are subsumed in wider damage statistics, and to the police where incidents are not labelled as heritage crime.

The efforts of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, many other archaeologists and organisations such as the National Council for Metal Detecting, to make members of the hobby more aware of the heritage value of metal detecting and the need for proper recording, are clearly paying dividends. But not even all detectorists who work within the law report their finds, denying the rest of us the benefit of the knowledge. Some detectorists report locations only to parish level, which is of limited value.

What now?

The nighthawking survey made seven recommendations:

  • Provide clear guidance to the police, CPS and magistrates on the impact of nighthawking, how to combat it, levels of evidence and possible penalties
  • Provide more information for landowners on identifying nighthawking and what to do when they encounter it
  • Develop better ways to find out what is going on and establish and promote a central database of reported incidents
  • Publicise the positive effects of responsible metal detecting and the negative effects of nighthawking
  • Ensure the PAS is fully funded, so links between archaeologists and metal detectorists are further strengthened
  • Integrate metal detecting into the archaeological process, including development control briefs
  • Implement changes recently introduced in Europe which increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title, and urge eBay to introduce more stringent monitoring of antiquities with a UK origin offered for sale on their website.

Exceptionally, Kent Police have devised measures to deal with nighthawking that provide a model of good practice that could be adapted to other areas:

  • Partnerships training supported by English Heritage, involving police officers, police community support officers, Kent county council wardens, and CPS in heritage-related crime
  • A nominated single point of contact with Kent Police
  • A nominated point of contact with English Heritage
  • Regular engagement between police and PAS finds liaison officer
  • Heritage expert working with Kent Police as a police support officer
  • Dedicated crown prosecutor trained in heritage and Treasure Act legislation
  • Engagement with archaeological groups and societies
  • Engagement with metal detector clubs
  • Identification of high-risk heritage and archaeological sites allowing crime prevention strategy to be developed
  • Network of accredited volunteers linked with neighbourhood watch and other crime prevention packages.

In the short-term, nighthawking incidents can be reported to Oxford Archaeology Nighthawking. English Heritage will be looking to develop longer term reporting mechanisms, as will other partner organisations, and discussions are already in hand with the Association of Chief Police Officers and Kent Police about developing training for all concerned in the reporting, recording, detection, policing and prosecution of nighthawks.

Integrating detecting more fully into the archaeological process may well require further "hearts and minds" work on some people in both camps, but the bottom line is metal detecting is simply another survey technique. The fact that the technique is abused by a small minority of thieves does nothing to invalidate that fact.

Even closer cooperation between archaeologists and metal detectorists may help us to move to a position where nighthawking is as unacceptable as collecting birds eggs. The trick will be to ensure that people undertaking legitimate and legal detecting are not hounded. The answer, at least in part, might be a variation of the Kent Police use of neighbourhood watch and similar schemes – local people who know the landowners or tenants, and are familiar with who has permission to be on their land.

A tougher nut to crack may be the trade in illicit or poorly provenanced antiquities that fuels nighthawking. The PAS has made inroads into the trade in undeclared treasure through its monitoring of eBay, but it would help considerably if everyone who came into contact with treasure had to report it, not just the finder. More stringent monitoring of antiquities offered for sale on eBay, as has been introduced in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, would help stop artefacts being sold illegally.

The report, Nighthawks & Nighthawking, can be found at It was produced by Oxford Archaeology for English Heritage, with partnership funding from Cadw, Historic Scotland, National Museum Wales and the Portable Antiquities Scheme and in-kind support from Guernsey Museums Service, Jersey Heritage Trust, Manx National Heritage, National Museums Scotland and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Pete Wilson is head of research policy (Roman archaeology) at English Heritage.

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