Monday, 16 February 2009

Damage to Archaeological Sites in the UK caused by Illegal Searching and Removal of Antiquities

A national survey has been carried out into illegal artefact hunting in the UK and Crown Dependencies taking place between 1995 (the date of the last attempt to quantify the problem) and 2008. The survey (the so-called “Nighthawking Survey”: Anon [!] 2009 Nighthawks and Nighthawking: Damage to Archaeological Sites in the UK and Crown Dependencies caused by Illegal Searching and Removal of Antiquities, Strategic Study Final Report, Oxford Archaeology for English Heritage) was undertaken by Oxford Archaeology. The study was commissioned by English Heritage back in May 2006 and it was supported by Cadw, Historic Scotland, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Archaeology Guernsey, Jersey Heritage Trust, Manx National Heritage, The National Museums Scotland, National Museum of Wales, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. As reported here earlier, the report was launched on Monday Feb. 16th.

The survey has revealed that despite the UK having some of the most liberal laws on artefact hunting in the world, the threat to the UK’s archaeological heritage posed by illegal artefact hunting is high. It affects both sites protected by law as well as illegal hunting and removal of artefactual material for collection and sale from other groups of archaeological sites.

The main culprits are artefact hunters who use metal detectors, since – unlike pot diggers or those searching for stone tools – they can work in the dark, and avoid being seen on protected areas. For this reason the offence has become colloquially known as “nighthawking”. The Oxford Archaeology survey concludes that the crime is most prevalent in the central and eastern counties (Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Oxfordshire, and the Yorkshire region) but rare in the west and south-west and Scotland but is almost unheard of in Northern Ireland, and the Crown Dependencies. According to the report, so-called 'Honey pot' sites such as Roman settlements are often targeted repeatedly (with regard another discussion, it is notable how many of the case studies mention the involvement of ancient coins which recall a certain US interest group insists "are not taken from archaeological sites" by looters). The period after ploughing is the most common time for the activity, with considerable damage caused not only to the buried archaeological remains but also to crops and fields.

The report finds that for various reasons violators of the laws intended to protect Britain’s buried archaeological heritage are rarely punished. This is a low priority crime for British police, who often do not know how to deal with infringements. Cases of arrest or prosecution are at an all time low, convictions even more so and penalties are woefully insufficient to act as any kind of deterrent. Since 1995, only 26 cases have resulted in formal legal action, with the punishment usually being a small fine from as little as £38 (Illegally parking a car in Britain carries a £120 fine). The secrecy surrounding the crime means that it is significantly under-reported, the lack of successful prosecution over the past few decades has led to the lack of confidence of the victims in the legal process. The survey found out that only 14% of landowners, when discovering that their property has been afflicted by nighthawking, have reported it to the police, thus 86% of cases remain unreported. Most landowners who recognise the problem responded by tackling the culprits themselves or imposing a complete ban on metal detecting or the responsible reporting of finds made on their land (which they argue would increase the likelihood of clandestine looting).

Yet it turns out that a regional survey (East Midlands) suggests that 17% of farmers in the region were affected. In the UK however there are approximately 300,000 active farms, so it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this is a problem affecting archaeological sites on up to 50 000 farms in the UK, the report itself concludes that incidences of looting are "down" (I will examine this important problem, already discussed here a few weeks ago, in a separate post, maybe tomorrow when I have read the 212 pages of the report more thoroughly).

Although most of the 10 000 artefact hunters in Britain “know who these people are”, it is telling that in the survey only 20 of them contacted Oxford with any information. The National Council for Metal Detecting (their main representative body) was initially also less than co-operative – which matches their lack of co-operation in the 1995 survey. Relatively few of the affected landowners contacted the survey and volunteered information. This severely hampered the information gathering at the basis of the report, but its authors are clear that the lack of reported incidents creates a false picture of the seriousness of the problem.

Key recommendations of The Nighthawking Survey (slightly edited):
1. Raise awareness of the negative effects of illegal artefact hunting in the UK. 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;

2. Provide guidance to landowners on identifying nighthawking and what to do when they encounter its traces;

3. Establish a central database of reported nighthawking incidents and
promote its use to enable data gathering;

4. publicise positive aspects of responsible artefact hunting and the negative effects of breaking the law then the criminal element will stop thieving (that's what it suggests folks)

5. Keep funding the PAS to further strengthen links between archaeologists and some artefact hunters and collectors then the criminal element stop thieving (seriously).

6. Get some artefact hunters involved in archaeological activities then the others will stop thieving (I'm not making this up)

7. Implement recent European initiatives on the selling of antiquities,
which increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title; urge e bay 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;

Recommendations 4-6 are the usual fluffy bunny politically-correct nonsense fashionable in British archaeological circles these days about “rais[ing] awareness of the positive effects of responsible metal detecting” (no mention here about discussing the desirability of encouraging artefact hunting and collecting), plus of course “reaffirm[ing] the contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme” (to what precisely?) and “encourag[ing] the integration of metal detecting into archaeological work”. The latter is really totally ambiguous if you think about what is usually meant by the inadequate label “metal detecting”. These three propositions are really quite puzzling, given the report's general premise, upheld throughout that it is not the responsible metal detectorists who can be held responsible in any way for the "nighthawking" but a totally different group of people with criminal and anti-social tendencies that we should not confuse with the ones that are "partners" of archaeology.

The report as a whole is rather incoherently written, it seems to have gone for length rather than clarity of delivery, and the (unnamed) authors lose sight of its aims in several places, and includes much which is irrelevant and padding. It also has a clearly pro-collecting agenda. I really am at a loss what the whole of Appendix 13 [pp 65-71] which is unattributed (who and what is "SRC"?) and misleading and has no relevance to any significant part of a report on illegal artefact hunting. The report itself is anonymous ""it is not policy for this document to name individuals"...
Vignette: Looking at Nighthawks (famous art by Dee)

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