There was an extraordinary article published recently " Portable Antiquities Scheme moves to allay fears over nighthawking" by Richard Moss published on the 18th in "culture24" (which used to be MLA's '24 hours Museum'). In it Roger Bland head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme attempts to allay any fears the readers of the recent press coverage in the UK might have had about the scale of the problem of the various types of illegal artefact hunting in the United Kingdom.
It's not really a big problem he tries to convince us, along with "metal detectorist" and commercial artefact hunting rally organizer Norman Smith (here, with comment by US collector Jorg Lueke), former ACCG president Peter Tompa, ACCG officer, Californian coin dealer ('Classical coins') Dave Welsh and New York coin dealer ('Imperial coins') Alfredo de la Fe (see a pattern here?).
Over on Looting matters, Roger Bland attempts to defend his position as reported in the Culture 24 article. he admonishes David Gill:
Rather than just quoting headlines and opinions on this subject, it might be helpful to look at the facts that are published in the Nighthawking report. The problem here is that the report is pretty low on facts, it is based on a poor dataset and is rather incoherently-written. The label “nighthawking” is totally unsatisfactory and covers a number of different phenomena. Indeed, as Bland notes the report does indeed conclude (though on very uncertain evidence) that deliberate illegal artefact hunting on SMs is “down”, though I think not enough significance is attached to what it also says [Report p. 91] that one reason for this may be that all those likely to produce the material these people are after have already been denuded to such a state that further exploitation is uneconomical – this also means that of course that their archaeological and cultural value has been damaged severely. Likewise as Dr Bland himself points out the report explains why the raiding of archaeological excavations is less than it was in the mid 1990s [p. 91-2].
It seems rather disingenuous to claim that because the reports results suggested there two kinds of “nighthawking” were reduced that this is in some way a success of the PAS. The latter does not in any case not cover Scotland or Northern Ireland – in the latter the researchers found NO “nighthawking” (while in the former we do not have the 1995 figures). The counties identified however as most strongly affected are among those in which PAS outreach has been at a very high level of intensity and lasted longest.
Roger Bland further writes on Looting matters: But the facts in the Report do not bear out the assertion that came across in some of the media reporting that nighthawking is a growing problem. Well I suppose that really depends which “facts” one seizes on and which one ignores. I would say that the apparent non-reporting of treasure items in Scotland is not a problem on the decline, indeed we need more investigation to establish its scale, though measures are now being put in place in Scotland to combat it.
The 1995 study did not gather statistics on illegal artefact hunting on non-scheduled sites (ie the vast majority of known archaeological sites in the UK). The 2009 study had great difficulty gathering information on it, so it is impossible to say for sure using the gathered data whether it is actually “up” or “down”. That however is not the most important point. The results of the COSMIC study quoted by the OA “Nighthawking” report [p 31-2] however do suggest that it is currently a very substantial problem indeed. The report even suggests [p. 91] that this type of site is now being increasingly targeted as the formerly more productive scheduled sites have become denuded of finds.
Roger Bland suggests we in PAS want to work with EH to take the recommendations forward, but one of them was convincing the police and the courts (and landowners and law makers) that the problem is a serious and important one. That actually was one of the main reasons for compiling the report in the first place. I fail to see how the PAS is helping matters by issuing public statements working against this policy like “the report shows it is less of a problem than it used to be […] and we’re keen to get that message across”. What “message” is there here and on whose behalf is the PAS “getting it across”? In whose interests is the PAS trying to persuade the British public that this is “less than a problem than it used to be” when looking at the whole of the UK there is no evidence that this is the case at all (and it is simply weasel wording to say “but in a lot of areas of the country it’s hardly known about”).
The whole crux of the matter is that all the above-mentioned apologists seem to be saying that it is wrong to point out the problems engendered by existing policies, we should be looking at the "benefits" (sic) brought by the current system. That however is no excuse for not gathering information on illegal activity and discussing what to do about it, or showing that there is a need to do anything about it. This is like suggesting that since most citizens are law-abiding, we do not need to investigate crime. That would only benefit the criminals.
How ironic also it is that the article is illustrated by a photo of the Newark torc which newspaper reports indicate had been found under somewhat questionable circumstances by a man reportedly searching an aircraft crash site with a metal detector. The law of the United Kingdom (Protection of Military Remains Act 1986) requires that an artefact hunter (such as a "metal detectorist") needs a permit to search such sites. Enquiries last year indicated that no such permit had been issued to the finder by the relevant authority before the discovery was made.