Nighthawking Report Released Today
Britain’s heritage is under threat from illegal metal detectorists, who face little chance of being caught, a report concludes.
A new report makes a series of conclusions and recommendations on the issue of ‘nighthawking’ (the search and removal of antiquities from the ground using metal detectors without the permission of the landowners or on prohibited land such as scheduled monuments).
The report was commissioned by English Heritage and supported by Cadw, Historic Scotland, National Museum of Wales, The Portable Antiquities Scheme, Archaeology Guernsey, Jersey Heritage Trust, Manx National Heritage, The National Museums Scotland and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. It concludes a project conducted by Oxford Archaeology, Nighthawks and Nighthawking: Damage to Archaeological Sites in the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies caused by illegal searching and removal of antiquities.
Full details of the survey including its recommendations are downloadable here.
The key recommendations of the report are as follows:
- Provide clear guidance to the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Magistrates on the impact of nighthawking on archaeological records and understanding, how to identify that it has taken place, how to collect evidence for prosecution and appropriate penalties
- Provide guidance to landowners on identifying nighthawking and what to do when they encounter
- Implement changes recently introduced in Europe which increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title; urge eBay to introduce more stringent monitoring of antiquities with a UK origin offered for sale on their website, as they have done in Germany, Switzerland and Austria
- Establish a central database of reported nighthawking incidents and promote its use
- Raise awareness of the positive effects of responsible metal detecting and the negative effects of nighthawking
- Reaffirm the contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and support its continued operation; and
- Encourage the integration of metal detecting into archaeological work
The project found that the threat to archaeological items was high, but prosecutions were at an all-time low and penalties
The report states that criminals use auction websites to sell antiquities. Many items are said to be worth little financially but are of significant historical value. Nighthawking is a form of theft and can be prosecuted under the Theft Act. English Heritage said responsible metal detecting provided a valuable record of history, but nighthawks - by hoarding the finds or selling them on without recording - are thieves.
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.
Source: English Heritage
- Norfolk (23 sites hit)
- Essex (14)
- Oxfordshire (13)
- Suffolk (12)
- Lincolnshire (11)
- Kent (11)
English Heritage said the 240 sites attacked between 1995 and 2008 were likely to be a fraction of the true scale of the under-reported crime. More than a third of the attacks were at scheduled monuments - key sites of historical interest. The study found only one in seven landowners who discovered they had been targeted by nighthawkers informed the authorities. Only 26 cases resulted in legal action, with most offenders handed a small fine, in one case for as little as £38 (while illegally parking a car carries a £120 fine). Researchers also found about one in every 20 archaeological excavation sites was targeted by thieves. By its very nature, ciminal activity is hard to measure.
They said Roman sites often served as a honey-pot for thieves, and could be targeted repeatedly, particularly after the land had been ploughed.
Sir Barry Cunliffe, English Heritage chairman, called for better guidance for police on the impact of nighthawking and a national database to detail the extent of the problem. He said nighthawkers were
thieves of valuable archaeological knowledge that belongs to us all.
The report is launched today at the Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House. The current study follows a previous project, Metal Detecting and Archaeology in England conducted by the Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage, which was of fundamental importance in establishing the risk posed by nighthawking. This 1995 report derived from the CBA Portable ANtiquities Working Group – the executive committee of the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities (a forum of nearly 50 national and local archaeological bodies with an interest in portable antiquities). This survey found considerable evidence of illegal activity damaging scheduled ancient monuments and raids on archaeological excavations across the country. However, it was not possible at the time to quantify the scale of the problem.
CBA Director, Dr Mike Heyworth MBE, speaking at the launch today said,
More work is needed to stop the loss of our history to thieves. The heritage sector has to do more, and work with farmers and landowners, with the law enforcement agencies, and with legislators. Otherwise it will be too late. Archaeological finds are, after all, a finite resource. When they are gone they are lost for ever. We must not continue to allow that to happen.
The most significant way to stop nighthawking is to regulate the markets that make the venture worthwhile, to hinder illegal activity and engender more respect for our archaeological heritage. If there was no financial profit to be made then there would be no motive for these criminals.
This report makes clear that illegal metal detecting is going on at significant levels in some parts of the study area, and is leading to a major loss of knowledge. This is a matter of significant public concern given the huge interest in the past – from all sectors of the population, including many responsible detectorists and finders.
The survey also calls for the setting up of a central database of reported nighthawking incidents and a tightening of the Treasure Act requiring all who come into contact with treasure finds, not just the finder, to report them.
Further information on the Nighthawks and Nighthawking project can be found here:
A code of practice for responsible metal detecting is available here.
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