Nighthawking Report Published: Illegal Metal Detecting Has Decreased

The long-awaited report upon the impact of illegal metal detecting (“nighthawking”) conducted by Oxford Archaeology on behalf of English Heritage, is now available from  the Historic Environment Local Management website.  It appears that illegal metal detecting in England has declined since 1995, the point at which soon after, in 1997, the Portable Antiquities Scheme first began its efforts.

Ownership declaration is an important legal strategy undergirding the protection of heritage; but this declaration in isolation does not necessarily create the best cultural heritage policy. Effectively guarding every archaeological site is impossible given limited resources. The looting of corresponding sites elsewhere in the World, particularly in North and South America is a travesty and presents a foudational problem with heritage policy. One potential solution is a policy framework and network of PAS-style liason officers. That’s not to say that these states should encourage metal-detecting, but the efforts of the PAS have appeared to substantially decreased looting and illegal activity.  Education and outreach, even if it means compromise, are essential. Outreach and education is badly needed.

The PAS works in conjunction with the law, which was of course a compromise postion between heritage advocates and landowners. A very strong legal regime may in a perfect world be the best policy. But what good are they if they aren’t meaningfully enforced? In the heritage context, the PAS and metal detectorists are producing contextual information. It’s a different kind of information, which we can characterize as shallow but extremely broad; rather than a thorough documentation of sites which might be narrow but very deep.

The most interesting revelation of the report is the suggestion that metal detecting has substantially decreased since the PAS began.  In 1995, 188 scheduled monuments were reported damaged; in 2008, that number was 70.  In 1995, 74% of archaeological units reported their sites had been molested; in 2008 that number is 28%.  I take that as pretty strong support for the proposition I argued for in my recent piece on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin, IJCP (2008).

Despite the overall decrease, the report still argues the criminal penalties remain insufficient, and the local enforcement officers and the Crown Prosecution Service need to do more to ensure individuals caught violating the law receive suitable punishment.  At present the maximum penalty is three months in prison and a £1,000 fine. 

The report provides a number of other key points:

  1. Provide clear guidance to the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Magistrates on the impact of Nighthawking, how to combat it, levels of evidence and possible penalties.
  2. Provide more information for landowners on identifying Nighthawking and what to do when they encounter it.
  3. Develop better ways to find out what is going on and establish and promote a central database of reported incidents of Nighthawking.
  4. Publicise the positive effects of responsible metal detecting and the negative effects of Nighthawking.
  5. Ensure the PAS is fully funded, so links between archaeologists and metal detectorists are further strengthened.
  6. Integrate metal detecting into the archaeological process, including development control briefs.
  7. 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.

Media Coverage:
Bloomberg, Telegraph, AFP, BBC, Guardian, Times


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Metal Detectors Discover Important Viking Hoard in Yorkshire


A father and son metal detecting in a field near Harrogate discovered what could be the most important Viking hoard discovered in Great Britain in 150 years. The hoard was likely buried some time in the 10th century.

The two detectors, David and Andrew Whelan, found 617 silver coins, a gold arm-ring and a gilt silver vessel. The objects come from Afghanistan, Russia, Scandinavia and Ireland among others.

To qualify as treasure, generally speaking a find must be composed of valuable materials like silver or gold. Such was the case here, and as a result the finder and the landowner will receive an award based on the value of the find. In this way, the treasure act encourages finders to report their discovery. Of course they will also receive a great deal of publicity for this important discovery.

There are problems, because its application hinges on the composition of the find. But it does an excellent job of forming a good compromise between treasure hunters and archaeologists. These metal detectors are compensated; while if there was simply a national ownership declaration, finders might be tempted to hide their discovery and sell it on the black market.

One of the local treasure Coroners, Geoff Fell stated at the treasure trove inquest in Harrogate that “Treasure cases are always interesting, but this is one of the most exciting cases that I have ever had to rule on. I’m delighted that such an important Viking hoard has been discovered in North Yorkshire.”

Michael Lewis, the deputy head of the British Museum Treasure Scheme praised the finders because “[they] resisted the temptation to tip the hoard … That gave the museum the opportunity to investigate the hoard.”

This find seems to have produced great results for everybody. Metal detecting cuts both ways. Responsible detectors like the Whelan’s can really add to the body of historical knowledge, but there are irresponsible detectors as well, as the forthcoming nighthawking (detecting at night) study to be conducted by the British Museum will reveal.

The BBC has an account here, with pictures and video. There is more detail here from 24dash. Hat tip to Cronaca.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Night Metal Detecting Looting Britain?

Archaeologists claim so, at least in Jasper Copping’s article in the Sunday Telegraph. They claim the practice, called “nighthawking”, is destroying context in a number of protected sites. These detectors then sell the works on the internet or eBay. These claims of antiquities transactions on the internet are thrown about a great deal, but I’m aware of no concrete study or even much in the way of supporting evidence of this claim, though there are sometimes anecdotal claims which are thrown about.

It seems that English Heritage and the British Museum have commissioned a £100,000 study into the scope of the activity, which might lead to new legislation to deal with offenders.

There certainly are problems with the Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences (Act), which makes it difficult to establish wrongdoing when purchasers do not inquire into an object’s provenance. If new legislation is forthcoming, to be truly effective it needs to pinpoint the difficulty in regulating good faith purchasers, and raise the bar for the inquiry which must go into their decision to buy.

The nighthawking problem does reveal why protecting rural and historic sites can be so difficult. The Treasure Act has problems to be sure, but I have argued that it is a good and pragmatic compromise between archaeologists and antiquities collectors. When qualifying treasure is found under the Treasure Act (which applies only to England and Wales), finders are required by law to report the finds, and are rewarded for doing so. The forthcoming study will be interesting, and the actions by these unscrupulous detectors may run the risk of destroying the delicate compromise which the Treasure Act has created.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com