Thursday 20 November 2008

How much Illegal Metal Detecting in the UK?

In the MLA’s “A Review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme” (Clark K 2008) we are told [oddly enough, in the “Recommendations” p. 6] that “it [the PAS] also seems to have reduced the amount of illicit detecting on archaeological sites”. This is important because the author suggests (p. 7) “closing the scheme” would be deleterious because “illicit detecting (and thus loss of sites) may increase”. It seems de rigeur these days to accept that the Portable Antiquities Scheme is the best thing since sliced bread for “stopping looting”. Certainly that’s what Derek Fincham asserts (though cites no source for this belief), and as we have seen Californian coin dealer and ACCG officer Dave Welsh too. Just repeating an idea does not make it true. Now. however, the MLA has produced a report which says the same. Let’s have a look more closely.

Clark’s definition of Illicit detecting can be found on page 18 of the report:

So-called ‘nighthawks’ use metal detectors on sites without the permission of the landowner.
That's it. Well, that is by no means an adequate or full definition of illicit artefact hunting even in England and Wales, not by a long chalk. But there is more:

“Not only can such activities damage archaeology, they damage the reputation of responsible metal detectorists by association”.
This is the typical British politically correct newspeak – we catch the Oxford Nighthawk Survey saying the same thing, its one of the typical metal detectorist whinges too. Clark even cites “The Searcher (metal detecting magazine)” to make the point.

Well actually the problem is more complex than that. Illicit artefact hunting (be it in England or Afghanistan) in fact not so much damages archaeology and the reputation of artefact hunters, but damages archaeology and the reputation of the antiquities market that thrives on it. The Brits are so wrapped up in their narrow insular preoccupation of being nice to artefact collectors that it seems they find it terribly difficult to see the wider context of the debate. All forms of clandestine and illegal artefact hunting are the real – and almost only – reason for the disapproval among archaeologists and other conservation-minded folk of the artefact trade and portable antiquity collecting.* I cannot see where British archaeologists have a problem seeing it in those terms and where such statements come from.

So how much illegal artefact hunting is going on in the UK? Well, since it is a clandestine act, the answer is that we really do not know. Ms Clark mentions on page 9 of her text the survey done by Dobinson & Denison (1995 - she gives the wrong year of publication in the text and totally misrepresents it as "a report on the illicit use of metal detectors"). She says they found that "...188 scheduled ancient monuments (SAMs) had been attacked in the [previous] five years and that 37 out of 50 archaeological units reported raids on excavation sites”. But on page 18 of her review she makes the following bald statement:

Initial results [of the Nighthawking Survey] suggest that the problem has decreased significantly since the last survey in 1995 – the amount of damage to monuments has been reduced by a half and 27% of units report problems. It is possible that a strong, local ‘responsible’ metal detecting community might act as a ‘watch dog’ and deterrent to illicit detecting.
This looks like pre-publication ‘leak’ of the preliminary Oxford Nighthawking Survey results (though the survey is not mentioned in the acknowledgements as having supplied such information). It would seem from this then, extrapolating from Ms Clark's 'leaked' summary of these results, that the Nighthawking Survey has been informed about illegal metal detecting on c. 94 scheduled ancient monuments in the whole of the UK, which would be the context of Clark's assertion that the number is “down by a half”.

The quoting of these figures in this context is laughable. First of all, Clark’s own definition of “nighthawking” from page 18 does not mention scheduled monuments, while that was the only category studied by Dobinson & Denison, and by inference this must be the yardstick to which she is referring. So how many archaeological sites which are not scheduled sites (like the field at Stixwould) are being looted by nocturnal trespassing thieves armed with metal detectors? In fact where are these reports expected to come from? How is a farmer with several thousand hectares to know his field was visited by nighthawks? If they don’t break down the fences or leave gates open and fill the holes in and there is rain between their visit and the time a farmer visits that particular area of his farm, there would be few traces (or none that could not be equally attributable to poachers, or other intruders).

Secondly Clark fails to stress that Dobinson and Denison's survey was restricted to England and Wales, while the Oxford Survey covers the entire UK, including the Channel Islands. The PAS only operates in a part of this area. If so-called nighthawking has decreased in the area as a whole, including those not covered by the Scheme, then the effect is not due to the Scheme. I really do think we need to see the actual results of the Oxford Survey before making any statements like the ones we find in this review and drawing hasty conclusions from them.

In particular I am disturbed by the apparent assumption by the Oxford survey that "responsible metal detectorists" will “shop” fellow metal detectorists by filling in their questionnaire. This is very naïve. UK metal detectorists stick together and rarely do this kind of thing - except out of spite. As we have seen, metal detectorists are fully aware who among them does this kind of thing, where and when it is going on. As Stixwould rally organizer Norman Smith said: “the problem is we all know who they are and do nowt about it". So much for the notion that if any drop in frequency of illegal activity is a real one, it is because "responsible detectorists are policing sites". Far from it, most responsible detectorists generally keep well clear of such folk, they have a reputation for being dangerous. Several of my contacts have been threatened by these less savoury elements just for expressing support for the PAS. I have heard reports of damage done to cars of responsible detectorists who have criticised the unethical behaviour of fellow detector users. It is pretty telling that even the archaeologists involved in the Oxford Survey have decided that they should preserve their anonymity for fear of reprisals.

An interim statement has appeared in the periodical British Archaeology (Anon 2008). One of the questions examined was whether “nighthawking” occurred across the whole country or whether it was concentrated in certain hotspots, preliminary results suggested it was most prevalent in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland (Anon 2008, 24). Oddly enough it is precisely in three of these counties that the first attempts were made to "liaise" with metal detectorists (Tony Gregory and colleagues in Norfolk and the Fenland regions in the 1970s). The interim statement makes no mention of any "reduction by half" of damage to sites in the UK generally. The looting that is currently going on affects both scheduled and unscheduled sites; Roman ones were particularly targetted (Roman artefacts find a wider international market than Anglo-Saxon, Medieval or prehistoric ones), and it was noted that raids were more frequent on sites near to motorways. More interesting, preliminary results suggest that “there is evidence of an efficient grapevine, whereby nighthawks are notified immediately after a suitable phase of cultivation, or just before legal archaeological or metal detecting surveys” (Anon 2008, 24). This of course goes against the general trend within artefact hunting as a whole to protect information about potential search sites from fellow artefact hunters and suggests the prospect that in Britain too (as certainly is the case in the Balkans and Crimea), to some extent illegal metal detector use and the sale of portable antiquities is in some way linked with organized crime.

The author of this interim report stress that the archaeological issues are about more than the common law theft of the objects, but the “unrecorded removal of archaeological material can irretrievably distort the archaeological ‘signature’ of a site, or even destroy it altogether. Artefacts retrieved (sic) in this way lose much or all of their potential to inform about the past, and may suffer substantial damage”. The authors note that people affected by this crime in the UK do not have confidence in the police, magistrates or the Crown Prosecution Service (to which I bet we could add "archaeologists") to take effective action. In general, illegal metal detector use is treated as a relatively low priority crime by police forces in most of the country (though both Kent and Wales police forces now have small units dedicated to fighting heritage crime). When successful prosecutions are made, the resulting sanctions are often no more than token cautions or small fines.

There could be many reasons why the Oxford Survey has no information of illegal metal detecting on all but 70 scheduled sites. It could be that so many scheduled sites were so badly denuded of anything collectable in the 1980s and 1990s that by 2007 their metal detecting was less profitable than it had been a decade earlier and the clandestine detectorists had moved on to other areas. Perhaps the metal detectorists are getting better at filling their holes in after digging. Maybe EH field monument wardens are not getting to as many sites as a decade ago (currently they visit each site on an average once every three years - so it is difficult to see how they could detect any nighthawking that was not leaving two-metre deep holes). Finally not all the sites are owned by farmer John Browning. The important point however is that this is not a problem that only affects scheduled sites are either undergoing nighthawking. To prevent nighthawks finding sites where collectables may be found, the findspot data in the entire PAS database is hidden from public view, not only that referring to scheduled sites.

The number of archaeological units reporting “nighthawk” activity is said to be lower than 1995, but then as far as I am aware, the number of units is far lower than it was nearly a decade and a half ago (Oxford Archaeology itself having become one of the expansive big units which as developed in recent years). Since, however, one of the main reasons why artefact hunters have been attacking archaeological excavations has been because the topsoil (contaminated with many modern non-collectable metal artefacts) has been removed – one wonders whether the Oxford Survey did muich outreach to building contactors to ask whether trespassing on building sites after earthmoving had also dropped in this period.

I think we are ill-served by the leaking of and drawing conclusions from the preliminary results of a complex and controversial joint project like this without the ability to assess the conclusions in the light of a presentation of the manner in which the data were gathered and their limitations. We are asked by the pro-collecting lobby to take too much on trust without any concrete and verifiable facts being presented to support the rosy picture they wish to paint. It may be that illegal artefact hunting has declined in Britain over the past decade, or it may be that there are many interests which have much to gain by pulling wool over everybody's eyes. Let us examine this new information in its wider context when the report appears.

*Clark goes on (p. 33) to note: PAS is also seen internationally as a pioneering way of dealing with the problem of illicit detecting. Banning detecting seems only to drive it ‘underground’ and to turn responsible detectorists with an interest in the past into criminals. Another typical “detectorist” whinge which I do not want to go into just now but is from the same stable. It is disappointing to see such things trotted out so glibly in a government sponsored report.

Anon 2008, Nighthawking’ British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2008.

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