Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A New Definition for "Nighthawking" in Britain?

Landowner: “I’m not so worried  
about the value of what they’re stealing. 
I’m more concerned that they are raping this ground.
This is Roman history – once they have dug it up it’s gone.”

Metal detectorists are raiding ancient sites to dig up artefacts declares Cahal Milmo as if he'd discovered the wheel ('Nighthawks': Tracking the criminals plundering ancient sites with the latest equipment', Independent 30th December 2015). Here is another article that states that the term is "nighthawkers" (to shift the emphasis from collecting to selling). He also contrasts the people he is writing about with "law-abiding metal detectorists" (who he alleges "often spot nighthawkers and their wares when they are put up for sale"). Law abiding ones however also pocket stuff from sites and where there is no legal compulsion to report them, they often do not - committing knowledge theft, perfectly legally.

The article is focussed on a regurgitation of the Kingscote stakeout reported here earlier. I suppose if the journalist had been thinking about the material thrust under his nose by somebody, he'd have asked himself whether "often" is the right adverbial to use above since the three that were filmed in action were never shopped by a single "law-abiding detectorist" who recognised them. But actually thinking about issues related to artefact hunting is not something the British are very good at. They apparently prefer to cut-and-paste comforting ideas and glib phrases from others to attempting any deeper analysis. 

Mr Milmo however offers a very interesting new definition of the term “nighthawks” (which he gets right here), counteracting the standard PAS fluff-bunnyism. Oh, please let other journalists cut-and-paste this one from him:
metal detectorists who raid ancient sites to dig up artefacts, which rather than being offered for public scrutiny then disappear forever into auctions or private collections. 
So, all non-reporting artefact hunters (knowledge thieves), irrespective of where they are and whose permission they have to search-and-take. I'd like to see that definition come into wider use:

Nighthawking has been a significant problem for at least a decade, ruining important archaeological sites by extracting treasures and disturbing ground without going through the steps performed by thousands of law-abiding detectorists who record locations and submit finds for professional classification.
I guess that then leads on to the question of how effective is the record made by the PAS actually mitigating the damage caused to sites by their extraction. That is not something the Scheme's supporters are very keen to discuss.

A site very close to my heart where  I spent months trying to tease information from the scant finds assemblage from chance finds responsibly reported and an old (1864) excavation is wide open to this kind of theft. This angers me, as it will refer to the shore fort and monastic site: 
Another Roman site at Bradwell in Essex was attacked earlier this month, leaving the landscape pockmarked with tell-tale holes.
Again, another tekkie mantra rolled out. Something is going badly wrong with the British heritage debate.  It is not the unfilled holes that is the problem here. It is the pocketing of precious evidence from an important and very sensitive site.

The article then talks of a "tightening of the law" (sic) "and a nationwide operation to crackdown on illegal metal detecting". I doubt however that by this the journalist actually means the phenomenon he described in his definition above. This is just so much feel-good verbal fluff as is the usual fare rolled out for the British reading public on portable antiquities issues.

There is an interesting statistic - but unsourced. The Oxford Archaeology "Nighthawking Report" infamously (and, I would say, erroneously) came to the conclusion that "because of the PAS", illegal artefact hunting was on the decline in England. The journalist disagrees:
The Independent understands that some 140 cases of nighthawking have been reported over the last five years as illegal detectorists invest up to £5,000 a time in night vision goggles and sophisticated detecting equipment, much of which comes with a GPS monitor to enable thieves to pinpoint locations. Finds are sold on auction sites or by word of mouth between nighthawkers. Some more valuable finds are even illegally exported abroad. [...] Mark Horton, professor of archaeology at Bristol University [...] said: “My feeling is that the scale of the problem is vast. Sites like the one we investigated have clearly been systematically looted for the last 10 to 15 years and that is just one of hundreds of sites
So, is illegal artefact hunting 'on the decline', or is there in fact continuous looting going on in precisely the period of an increase in joyful Treasure-filled press releases from the PAS highlighting the buried riches in Britain's fields? What do you think is the more likely?

1 comment:

Brian Curtiss said...

It seems a challenge to find direct evidence to help determine whether its increasing or decreasing. If there were a way to find out the number or prosecutions maybe we would see them increasing year over year for example, however, even that simple measure is flawed because a decrease in cases could simply be a lack of enforcement, or the perpetrators refining their techniques to avoid being caught, the priorities of local law enforcement, etc etc.

Are incidences of this increasing? The indirect evidence make me suspect it is. Can we prove it? How? In the USA there are certainly statistics available on crime types, convictions etc. but it's all murder, drugs, DWIs... I'm sure, somewhere somehow there is information on the number of us citizens that get caught for this. We see news stories about it. But how many per year? Is the number going up? And is this due to increasing activity levels? Or increased enforcement? If it were decreasing, is it due to fewer people engaging in it, or is it lack of commitment of law enforcement because they have other priorities? Or is it a question of the criminals getting better at avoiding detection?

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