Mark Horton, 'History wars: archaeologists battle to save our heritage from the nighthawks', The Conversation October 14, 2015.
Like grave-robbers, they come at the dead of night, wearing camouflage and dark clothes to avoid detection. Armed with increasingly powerful metal detectors, they work their way across the fields, digging holes wherever they find a target. Landowners wake to find their crops trashed and dotted with holes. Nobody can ever know what they found, as any artefacts are rapidly sold through online auctions or smuggled out of the country.In the fluffy bunny bit, the Portable antiquities Scheme gets a mention, but so does the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter ("this is just the tip of the iceberg of the many important finds that have been made – possibly as many as 4m – in recent years").
But there is a dark side to this seemingly harmless hobby. [...] The rather more liberal approach taken in this country means that [...] we have a serious problem with looting which, until now, authorities have largely failed to face up to: police often neglected to prosecute and magistrates were reluctant to convict. In the past, the ambiguous legal position on heritage crime has often allowed those arrested to plead ignorance, by claiming they didn’t realise that the site was protected, or that they even needed permission.Horton describes how some metal detectorists were "Caught in the act" in a joint investigation between the University of Bristol and the BBC, we set out to discover just how prevalent night-hawking is:
We set up six of these cameras around a well-known Roman settlement and protected ancient monument in the Cotswolds, and retired for a week to see what we might capture. There were, of course, several deer and foxes, but to our amazement our cameras also caught the full details of a night-hawking operation. The group arrived at 10.30pm, wearing full camouflage and beanie hats, and armed with powerful metal detectors. They stayed for around four hours, and we filmed them scanning the fields and digging holes across the site. A getaway car finally picked them up at 2am. We have no idea if they found anything significant or not but they were clearly equipped with the intention of looting, just as a burglar with a crowbar is equipped to steal.The salient thing about this is that this is a protected site, yet at one time in the year, in a period of seven nights, there was one four hour attack by three illegal hoikers. Let that period be half the year (though I suspect like other detectorists themselves, guys can go out in virtually all weathers). Statistically we could be looking at 26 attacks a year (312 detecting hours annually) on ONE SITE. One protected site. So Professor Horton, "how prevalent is" illegal artefact hunting in these post-PAS days?
[...] We hope that stiffer sentences will deter the nighthawks, and that new technologies will make it much easier to collect evidence of wrongdoing. Now, for the first time, it looks like we might just have the tools we need to defeat the nighthawks, and save our heritage for future generations.How much would it cost to install and maintain suitable numbers of hi-tech motion-activated high resolution video cameras to film heritage crime on just a hundred sites nationwide, and what guarantee is there that the thieves will not walk off with the cameras too?