Saturday 28 February 2009

The NCMD against the Treasure Act

While looking for something else, I found an old text on the internet and thought it was an interesting illustration of what kind of obstructive behaviour the British archaeological resource preservation lobby are constantly up against when dealing with British artefact hunters. This is the description from the point of view of delegates of the National Couuncil of Metal Detectorists to the draft Treasure Act which – for its propaganda value – the global pro-collecting lobby sees as the best thing for collecting of portable antiquities since sliced bread. The text is entitled “A record of a meeting held at National Heritage, Cockspur Street, London, on Monday 24th October 1994”. It would be interesting to see the official minutes of this consultation meeting.

It was the unanimous view off (sic) the delegates that we should make every effort to convince National Heritage that the Treasure Bill was unnecessary, unjust, unworkable, and too expensive to implement. […] This is a “metal" bill. It affects only metal detector users, and the honest ones (our members) do not need it. The thieves with detectors whom they need to address will not be affected by this bill. If the present Theft Laws cannot control them........ - this bill certainly will not ! No answer !

It is interesting to note the contrast between the NCMD insistence that the "honest ones don't need it" with the sharp rise in reported Treasure cases in England and Wales that the PAS highlights as being the result of its own activities in the past decade, suggesting much is being reorted now that would have simply disappeared before the PAS was set up. It would seem that - like so much in the topsy-turvy world of portable antiquity collecting - mere assertions of 'honesty" are relatively meaningless.
Also interesting historically:
“Our delegates made the point that too much land is being scheduled. There is no way, in the foreseeable future, for even sites already scheduled to be dug before acid rain, nitrate fertilizers and building development all take their toll. Not only that, but sites already scheduled years ago, examined, and low on priority lists for re-examination because of the new sites waiting for examination should be descheduled........... and handed over to us for our expert examination. Listened to with interest!
Yeah, right, too many scheduled sites... so they want us to deschedule scheduled sites to expose them to the "expert examination" of these people - these being the pre-PAS days of course, so what kind of information would have been recorded and made available if this proposition had been taken up is anyone's guess. I guess the message of why sites were being preserved had not really sunk in among this crowd, the national delegates appointed by their milieu to represent the hobby to the government.

Italian Public opinion turning against ‘tombaroli’

In Italy, reports Philip Willan ('Art hit squad takes on tomb raiders after relics looted ') “robbing tombs and other buried archaeological sites has long been a popular rural pastime. Like tax evasion, it was known to be illegal but not particularly frowned upon. The homes of wealthy professionals often contained a secret hoard of archaeological treasures and many felt they might just as well be in private hands as gathering dust in a museum storeroom. In recent times, attitudes have changed and there is a growing awareness that the unscientific excavations of the tombaroli are stealing the country's history, as well as an assortment of its antiquities.”

This change in public attitude has resulted from a persistent application of strategies adopted by the Italian government which has made life increasingly difficult for the looter. Firstly there is more open discussion of the problem in the media, there is also closer monitoring of archaeological sites, effective prosecution of offenders, with tougher penalties planned, and especially the aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade no-questions-asked in illegally excavated antiquities which is drying up the market for their goods.

This seems to be reducing the number of illegal excavations. In the 1990s, the carabinieri art squad responsible for dealing with this problem would discover about 1000 illegal digs annually. Recently it was down to just 37. Of course it may well be that part of the reasons for this may be that the looters had already destroyed most of the accessible part of the resource they were so mercilessly despoiling - it is after all finite.

An important element in the fight against these exploitive culture criminals is that the psychological climate had changed and Italian public is more aware of the problem and efects of looting. Maria Bonmassar, a spokeswoman for the Italian culture ministry. said: "In the past, if people found antiquities while digging the foundations of a house they would try to conceal them. Now, there is an awareness that this is a part of our cultural patrimony."

It seems to me there is a lesson here for the supporters of the PAS of England and Wales as the "only possible" approach to cutting down the exploitation of archaeological sites as a source of collectables. Becoming "partners" with the tomborolli and artefact hunters and thus misleading public debate about the nature and effects of the activity they are doing archaeology a disservice. The reduction in looting postulated (though hardly demonstrated) by the recent "Nighthawking" report in the UK pales into insignificance besides the Italian achievement.

Willan's article suggests that a key element was cutting through the network of dealers selling to foreign markets and prosecuting those at the no-questions-asked receiving end. It is heartening to see that the UK might be considering the first steps towards such a regulation of its own markets.

As a matter of accuracy, while reported as current news, Willan's article is largely a rehash of an earlier article Anguillara Sabazia 'Italy's crackdown on art looting keeps plunderers in check, for now' (The Associated Press, e.g. Herald Tribune July 5, 2007 ).
Photo: Sicilian Carabineri doing their job, obviously here after arresting a metal detector using plunderer.

Fincham on Good Faith

I really cannot agree with Derek Fincham’s earlier ideas on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but was intrigued by his latest offering, a draft paper Fraud on Our Heritage: Towards a Rigorous Standard for the Good Faith Acquisition of Antiquities in which he discusses the theoretical underpinning for "a new and rigorous standard for the acquisition of art and antiquities". I bet that will not make him too popular with the no-questions-asked portable antiquities dealers. Although he begins with an example from the UK, the paper quickly focuses on US law and US legalese, perhaps the title should reflect that. Some of the legalese was a bit above my head but I gather this good faith business is a little more complex than US portable antiquity dealers like to pretend. His conclusion is:

No presumption as to good faith should be tolerated any longer. Rather increased scrutiny of the antiquities trade is needed in which objective evidence of a purchaser's investigation of the legitimate title of the object in question must be the bare minimum for the acquisition of good faith in a given transfer.
With which I wholeheartedly agree.
Photo: Swiss Tony, used car dealer. He has a nice suit and a way with words, but would you trust him enough to buy undocumented goods from him?

Thursday 26 February 2009

Chinese retaliation

China said it will tighten control on the activities of Christie's
International, hours after the auction house sold a pair of Qing Dynasty bronzes in Paris for 31.4 million euros ($40 million), ignoring calls to return them. London-based Christie's must give details of the ownership and provenance of any artifacts it wants to bring into or out of China, the State Administration of
Cultural Heritage said today in a statement on its Website. Antiques that are without papers won't be allowed to enter or leave. [Bloomberg]
To judge from the forums it would seem that many dealers and collectors agree with James Sung, a political science professor at City University in Hong Kong who said: "China has overreacted". I would like to ask Christie's international to what extent they would have been wanting to take into and bring out of China artefacts without the proper paperwork anyway? Surely the right answer to that question is "none". I find it very odd that collectors can question a foreign state's right to determine what it will and will not allow across its own borders.

US efforts to curb illicit antiquity trade - Vitale

Katherine D. Vitale has published a text called “ The War on Antiquities: United States Law and Foreign Cultural Property”. It seems rather too pro-collecting in tone for my taste. Surely the title should read the “war on illicit antiquities”, since if somebody is trading items of legitimate provenance and can document the fact then they have no problem with US law. It's heavy going in places which leads the author to the conclusion:
“The United States should be enforcing the standards of CPIA, not those of NSPA and ARPA, because they expose museum officials to prosecution […].”
If a member of staff in any other kind of US public institution is found to have been knowingly handling illicitly-obtained material, are they not to face any consequences?

I must admit I’d not noticed before the full import of the precise wording of section 470ee(c) of the US Archaeological Resources Protection ActNo person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, receive . . in interstate or foreign commerce, any archaeological resource excavated, removed, sold…”. Interesting. I guess that means private collectors too.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Human body parts - price on request

Washington portable antiquities dealer, Sue McGovern-Huffman "Sands of Time" is offering many "exquisite rare and collectable" antiquities "that date from between 4000BC to the 8th century AD. Geographically, they originate from Egypt, the Near East and Europe and include objects fashioned from marble, bronze, glass, gold, pottery and stone". And human flesh. Dessicated. One item of "ancient art" and "culture" being offered by this dealer is the barbarously lopped-off foot of a human cadaver. Ostensibly it is a fragment of Egyptian mummy ("Item ID: EM806 An Egyptian Mummified Foot, New Kingdom ca 1550-1069BC") , but the only "provenance" offered is "Private Delaware collection acquired in the 1930's". Unlike the UK and many other countries, the USA seems not yet to have any firm laws on the commercial use of human tissues and body parts (see a number of scandals involving US funeral homes in recent years). I wonder then if the Washington dealer could get collectors and put up on her website for sale ("price on request") the blackened foot of a Blackfoot Indian, or some Anasazi ankle bones, or maybe an "Indian skull" or two. If she feels it is ethical trade to openly sell ancient body parts, why not all ancient body parts? I wonder what value in dollars she places on her newly-acquired lopped off foot?

UPDATE 25/2/09
I see Mrs McGovern reads my blog. The chopped off dried shrivelled human foot which she was trying to sell yesterday* has been replaced under the link I originally gave here (and with the same inventory number) now with a picture of a wooden foot [I have replaced that link in the post above so the original message makes sense]. The webpage currently states that it also is "New Kingdom" and was apparently acquired in the 1930s and ended up in a "Delaware collection" - how many New Kingdom feet does this dealer have from the same collection? This one has a price though: EUR 509.28

Lest readers think as the result of Mrs McGovern's switching the pictures that this blog's author cannot tell the difference between a wooden foot from a Delaware collection and a broken off bit of corpse, the original webpage was up long enough to find its way into Google cache, links here and here which should work a while. The link to the mummified foot from a Google search now reads: Sorry, this product is not currently available.

So how has she disposed of the original item which had the inventory number EM 806? How do you get rid of bits of dead bodies in Washington if you decide not to try to sell them? Aren't there laws about at least that?

A while ago there was a discussion about all this on Yahoo's Ancient Artefacts discussion group (from 7th Feb 2008 onwards). It turns out that not only did dealer Ernie Krumbein have another unprovenanced ripped-off dessicated cadaver foot for sale (not the same one, initially he mistook it for a hand), but a lot of other members had other body bits. "Jeffkeith2001" has a mummy head ("i[t] doesnt give me the creeps and I promise to keep it safe and respect it the best way I know how"), Chris Simons has a finger, Bob "Manor antiques" has a "beautiful mummified hand [...], wrapped in linen [...] I had a special glass case made for it, with a royal purple velvet lining. It sits atop my fireplace in the living room"... . Now we are constantly being told by the pro-collecting lobby that portable antiquity collectors take these things and use them to "learn about the past". I can see where that argument might have some grounds for believability (though personally I do not accept it is as simple as that) in the case of coins and egyptian amulets and other "art"work with pictorial messages for example. I do not see that a piece of dried human flesh falls into the same category. We all know what a foot looks like, we most of us have two of them. I do not see what one can "learn about the past" having a hunk of corpse in a velvet-lined case on the mantelpiece. That sounds more like curio-collecting, cheap thrill generation which has nothing to do with advancing any "personal vision of the past", or "learning about other cultures". This kind of collecting seems to cater for the nastier side of "bragging rights", trying to get the neighbour's kids talking about the collector in hushed tones ("he's got a real MUMMY on his mantelpiece"). A nasty business.

UPDATE OF THE UPDATE (March 1st):I can see Mrs McGovern regards human feet - real or sculpted a touchy subject and since I last wrote has now totally removed from her site the page to which the link above refers. Originally it was a shrivelled piece of human cadaver masquerading as "culture", then it was a New Kingdom sculpted wooden foot with the same inventory number and stated to be from a "Delaware" collection like the corpse chunk (and a NK canopic jar top now apparently sold). Now that page has gone and the wooden foot has reappeared on another page... here (until she changes the description and moves it again I guess) - but looky here... it's got a new inventory number, date and description, "EW713 An Egyptian wood foot from a statue, Middle Kingdom ca 2040-1783BC" and NOW it is provenanced "Private Californian collection" (is she making this up or getting her inventory confused with all this readjustment of inventory numbers?) With manipulation like this going on in the open, what in this trade is there that one can actually trust? But the price has gone down to $ 495.00 (EUR 391.50 ) perhaps because the dealer herself is no longer sure where it came from. The saga of the Footprints in the Sands of Time goes on and on... Pathetic.

*(Steven John wrote on Ancient Artifacts yesterday about the dealer's new website: "Only one criticism. On the 'New Items' page.. that mummified foot scares the pants off me!")

It seems these are not Sue McGovern's own feet with the clumpy shoes apparently straddling an ancient pot from "Private Californian collection, acquired in the 1960's and then by descent"(sic). This is apparently an attempt at antiquity-dealing humour.

Monday 23 February 2009

Quis Custodiet: Archaeology Heist Revealed In Alabama

US collectors make a huge fuss when stuff goes missing from foreign museums and storerooms, "see?", they say, "the source countries cannot be trusted with cultural property". They keep silent about the thefts taking place in their own country.

The site at Moundville on the banks of the Black Warrior River in central Alabama was a 300-acre village and from about 1000 to 1450 A.D. was one of the largest communities in North America. About 1,000 Mississippian Indians lived at Moundville at its height. When the village died out for unknown reasons, the area was left littered with pottery and other remnants of a highly organized society. The site is now an archaeological park operated by the University of Alabama. Items excavated from Moundville in the 1930s were stored in a locked, four-story repository at the site. The University has just announced that a large number of finds from the site have been stolen. The disappearance of 264 pottery vessels was the largest recorded antiquities theft in the South. The theft was discovered when University of Michigan students researching the collection found boxes of artifacts lined up by a wall, waiting to be carried out and empty places where other boxes should have been. What is remarkable about the admission is that the theft took place several decades ago, in 1980.

Jim Knight, chairman of anthropology at the University said that the theft was never made public; only a brief notice was placed in a scholarly journal.
The crime was probably silenced because of embarrassment and the belief that the stolen pottery was taken to collectors overseas and permanently out of reach, said Knight, who started work at Alabama the year after the heist. Knight disagrees with that smuggling theory and said the bottles, bowls and jars may still be in the United States. He hopes that publicizing the crime will lead to the recovery of the items. A university statement issued last week said the stolen items were appraised in 1980 at $1 million, which equals about $2.3 million today after inflation. The pieces included many of the best artifacts ever excavated at Moundville, [...] The university recently posted a Web site about the theft, complete with photos of all the stolen items. The FBI was the lead law enforcement agency working on the case, but no one was arrested before the case went cold. FBI spokesman Craig Dahle said he was unfamiliar with the theft and could not find any mention of it in agency records. University spokeswoman Cathy Andreen said she could find no record that the school did anything to make the general public aware of the loss. "None of the people who were working (at Moundville) then are there now," she said. The loss was staggering: About 70 percent of the university's exhibit-quality artifacts were gone. Only the best items were taken, leading Knight to conclude that whoever took them knew what they were after.
The Moundville repository now has locking steel doors, motion sensors, strict rules for gaining access and climate-controlled storage.

Jay Reeves, 'Archaeology Heist Revealed In Alabama' CBA News February 11, 2009

UPDATE May 2011: Oddly enough this same story (same wording) has re-surfaced on the Social Studies Council of Alabama website dated 13th may 2011. It would seem from this that the stolen pottery has still not turned up on the no-questions-asked market... 'Archaeology Heist Revealed In Alabama – CBS News'.

UPDATE Jan 22nd 2012: Still more amazing is the re-appearance of this story on a metal detecting advocay website/blog Dick Stout: "Alabama (sic) Needs Our Help" January 22, 2012, where there is a slight alteration to the title of the article:
Archaeology Heist By Professional Archaeologists Revealed In Alabama

The finders of Atlantis and pro-collecting lobbyists

A few days ago the UK tabloid "the Sun" published an article stating that Atlantis had been discovered. Bernie Bamford a 38 year old aeronautical engineer from Chester had discovered on Google Earth at 31 15'15.53N 24 15'30.53 W “a perfect rectangle the size of Wales lying on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean nearly 3 miles down, a host of criss-crossing lines, looking like a map of a vast metropolis, are enclosed by a boundary.” Bernie is quoted as saying: “It looks like an aerial map of Milton Keynes. It must be man-made.” While actually Milton Keynes looks nothing like this (wrong colour too) people have become very excited by this announcement. The Sun even got a US archaeologist to comment… One reader comments online : “... it's an abandoned undersea ufo base - it was only a few fathoms down before the last polar shift...” and another (tellingly calling themselves “Burningbooks”) suggests “Seems to me we are looking ever more for eyes in the sky and lost lands and aliens these days... maybe...”.

In fact the grid had been announced on a website before that by Larkin and Cynthia Jones.

Sadly for the desktop mysteries-of-the-past solvers, a little more honest approach to enquiry would have quickly revealed that there is a more prosaic explanation of these lines, it’s a piece of poor computer modeling of bathymetric data (there are apparently other examples – one off the coast of Ireland apparently and some similar traces NW of the Faroes). Presumably at some stage this problem will be cleaned up. The conspiracy theorists will then have a field day imagining a ‘cover up’ I suspect that for many years ahead we will be seeing this “Atlantis was proved” story resurfacing in the popular press, inviting reflection on “why people believe weird things”.

It seems to me that in the field of collecting there are some of these “weird things” being believed in. That ancient coins are “not artifacts”, that fresh portable antiquities on the market “do not come from the looting of archaeological sites” and so on. There seems no limit to the degree that one can show that these comfortable myths collapse on deeper examination and confrontation with other facts, despite this their proponents go on believing them and persuading like-minded desktop solvers of mysteries-of-the-past that its the "experts" who "got it wrong". Like Atlantis.

So lobbyists such as the Atlantean Commercial Coin Group carry on spreading the myths.
Photo: These are not looters' trenches, honest (from Google Earth).

Looking for the Anti-Antique Lefties

A few weeks ago I mentioned an article claiming to be “World Coin News” in which Richard Giedroyc a numismojournalist implicated me in something or other. I pointed out that the gentleman had not really grasped the gist of the China MOU which he was moaning about and suggested his readers might be better served if he checked out the facts before setting pen to paper.

Lo and behold, Mr Giedroyc has just come up with another one ( Cultural Patrimony Policy Still a Concern ), again sycophantically quoting the Executive Director of coin delers' lobby group ACCG. Giedroyc now demonstrates his belief that it is only "socialists" who are interested in conservation and people obeying the law. Astounding (he should meet my Mum, a true blue Thatcherite conservationist).

Where are these mythical Left wing archaeologists in the United States allegedly "against private ownership of any antique item regardless of how it was acquired"? Can Mr Giedrojc provide his readers a few references to statements such as this but made by these people themselves (and are not just words which numismoprovocateurs have put into their mouths)? Otherwise we'd be justified in concluding that this is at best alarmist overinterpretation and at worst simple myth-making to persuade collectors that they need the ACCG to "watch their backs' (sic) for them. Are the problems in getting new members so acute that the organization has to rely on misrepresentation and scare tactics to recruit them?

Who are these anti-antique-ownership "lefties" ? Name them and shame them ACCG !! Mr Giedrojć?

Saturday 21 February 2009

Stolen Iraqi artefacts still on the move

"Peru appears to be the farthest that purloined Iraqi treasures have traveled. Most other recovered items have come from neighboring countries. More than 2,500 artifacts have returned to Iraq from Jordan, along with more than 760 from Syria. Many stolen items have made it to further west. Thirteen pieces were found in Italy; and at least another dozen have surfaced in the United States, including a large statue of a Sumerian king".
(Mark Kukis Iraq's Ancient Treasures Lost and Found Time Feb. 19, 2009). He forgot the ones that are reported to have ended up in London in 2003. Arrests were apparently made, but I do not recall any mention of charges. I would have expected to see more reports of material being stopped by customs officials in the Gulf States.

It really is difficult to believe that only "a dozen" items wandered west across the Atlantic since 2003 and all twelve of them were stopped by US customs (the ones stopped at Lima airport were reported to have been found in the luggage of a US citizen going to the US). In 2008, the USA returned more than a thousand illegally exported items from Iraq that had been seized before the 2003 looting ("No criminal charges have been filed at this time in any of these investigations").

The "statue" referred to by Mark Kukis is presumably the Entemena one excavated in Ur. It is perhaps not entirely accurate to say it was recovered "in the United States", it seems to have got there through a "sting" operation in which one of the Aboutaam brothers seems to have played a positive role.

["Last year, federal prosecutors in New York contacted Hicham Aboutaam and expressed interest in trying to recover the statue, said one person with knowledge of those events. Mr. Aboutaam agreed to help. Subsequently, he or his brother made contact with an Iraqi expatriate businessman now living in Europe. Soon, that businessman, who was referred to as the broker, became the pivotal figure in securing the statue. Little is known about the businessman other than that he is involved in construction. But he began to shuttle among Iraq, Syria and other countries to make contact with those holding the statue and to negotiate its turnover. It was not known whether money had been paid to those holding the statue or whether promises had been made."]

Interestingly enough, though there was a lot of fanfare about the return of the object itself to the Iraqis in 2006, I do not recall seeing anything about the persons involved in its smuggling or offering for sale being apprehended or punished. This seems to be a general pattern, I get the impression from reading these accounts that the actions undertaken were "object-centred", rather than "preservation-centred", aimed at actually catching the smugglers and breaking the chain of the market in illicit antiquities.

See also: Barry Meir and James Glanz, 'U.S. Helps Recover Statue and Gives It Back to Iraqis' New York Times July 26th 2006.

Friday 20 February 2009

Mexico says US treasure firm can't explore shipwreck

Mexico has denied the request of controversial U.S. wreck hunting and salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Tampa, Florida, to explore and recover artifacts from a sunken 17th-century Spanish galleon in the Gulf of Mexico, the government said Monday. The galleon Our Lady of Juncal, was part of a fleet hit by a powerful storm in 1631 and sank with the loss of many hands.
A statement by Odyssey’s chairman Greg Stemm claims that "the proposal presented to Mexico for archaeological services [sic] is in compliance with the UNESCO Convention and would keep all cultural artifacts together in a collection." The proposal was turned down by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, because it "is not intended to conduct research and does not have the approval of archaeologists or an academic institution of recognized prestige". Odyssey does however seem to have won the British government over on the Sussex and looks likely to over the 1744 Victory wreck too. They do not seem worried by such issues. But good for the Mexicans.

British "Nighthawks" on Facebook

Those US dealers and collectors of no-questions-asked antiquities (the usual suspects) and others who seem to have jumped to the defence of British artefact hunters might be interested to see some posts on Facebook from a small semi-literate group calling themselves "The Metal Detecting Nighthawks". The members include at least four people from London, one from Nottingham, one from Wales and a gentleman with a Scottish sounding name (log on for details). I'd like to think this was a very bad joke, I fear though it is not.

The topics discussed on this forum tend to be about “looting I did last night” with a excursus on the relative values of a “tumbler” (sic) and electrolytic stripping for cleaning the antiquities (for the uninitiated – neither should be used on archaeological metalwork). It is interesting to note that these persons mention the places they do their searching and it is clear that they drive some considerable distances to get to some of them, presumably specific sites.

These unrepentant individuals are jubilant that their hobby was recently in the news due to the recent publicity around the release of the Nighthawking report and have a few things to say about it. For example: “Me and Dan were once stopped by the police, they didnt give two shits that we didnt have permision and just let us carry on! I think they have slightly more important things to do.” (London) and from Nottingham “hey up dave , theres no mention about my area notts , must be theres nowt round ere lol thats wat they think lol [***] em eh” [misspelt expletive deleted]. One London resident admits “I hate farmers. Inbreds.” To which another Londoner replied [spelling and punctuation as in original]:
It just isn't right, Who says the land belongs to them, In my eyes no one as the right to own land, I have the right to roam and i will. I'm helping to preserve finds by getting them out of the ground, finds that would be lost via chemicals & pesticides that corrode metal, Also helping by keeping the finds away from Archy's who in my experience are crooks and keep the looty for themselves. Don't be worried about getting bust, Police arn't interested, tresspass is a civil matter, plough theft is an offence if you have finds on your person. As a final note i want to add a comparitive... someone who pays £10,* detects all day, doesn't fill is holes in and doesn't record his finds OR someone who nighthawks, respects the land, fills is holes in and records his finds. Which one is Dick Turpin? and who as the right morals?
I wonder where a Dick Turpin nighthawk would go to “record” his finds? To the PAS(?) or to a rival “recording” scheme? We may ask ourselves what function "recording" them would have... The Nighthawking Report (page 93, point 9.3.9) mentions the concerns about the use of the PAS to give tainted objects a false legitimacy. When I mentioned this on this blog, readers may recall Roger Bland threatened to have the law on me. I would say that since the Facebook gang give what seem to be their real names, he might do better looking elsewhere for someone to criticise. Have any of their finds turned up on the PAS database?
* I think this individual is talking about metal detecting rallies. It may be that these people from heavily urbanised areas see only two alternatives, either paying to go on a commercial artefact hunting rally or going on land without permission but for no payment. The option that it they could get free permission from a farmer as do many responsible artefact hunters seems not to have occurred to them. "Archy's" (sic) in this text presumably means archaeologists.

Photo: candid action photo or posed? From the Metal Detecting Nighthawks page of Facebook (author unknown)

Thursday 19 February 2009

PAS moves to allay fears over nighthawking

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.

Wealthy Art Patrons and 'Villainous Thugs'

Adrian Humphreys ('Plundered artifacts returned, but problem continues', National Post, Feb 18, 2009) writes:

Five valuable cultural artifacts seized by border guards while being smuggled into Canada have been returned to two African governments, ending their mysterious life on the run while highlighting the illicit trade in cultural antiquities, a pursuit that bonds wealthy art patrons to villainous thugs.

The items in question were two terracotta figurines and "an undated but culturally significant wood carving", repatriated to Nigeria, and three inscribed bronze bracelets turned over to officials from Mali. Of course any provenance these objects may once have had was (like that of many others) lost when they passed no-questions-asked antiquities market which is a cover for the illicit trade in "tainted" antiquities.

Nigerian High Commissioner Iyorwuese Hagher praised Canada's vigilance and called on citizens to support efforts aimed at "exposing syndicates who are still engaging in theft and smuggling and illicit trade in valuable items that form part of Nigeria's national heritage. "Africa continues to wallow in poverty when their raw materials and even artifacts continue to be plundered by thieves that benefit from illegal trade in these materials in international markets," he said.
The newspaper reports that on average, there are more than three seizures of suspected illicit cultural items at Canada's borders every month, according to figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency. In 2007, border agents reported 38 seizures. The Movable Cultural Property Directorate has investigated 240 potentially illegal imports of plundered antiquities and made 13 returns since 1978 to eight countries, including Egypt, Colombia, Peru and Syria. Nevertheless despite their vigilance a lot is probably still getting through, a lot more resources are needed to curb this problem.

The Canadian newspaper points out that the illicit trade is fuelled, in large measure, by patrons in western nations with an insatiable desire to posess "unique objets d'art". As the value of these items goes up as legitimate sources dry up, it becomes more profitable for those willing and able to supply them by illicit means.

The illicit art market, of which plundered cultural items is a subspecialty, is considered the world's fourth-largest criminal enterprise - after drugs, guns and money-laundering - generating about $4- to $6-billion a year, according to the United Nations.
It is interesting however to see that the Canadian media seem currently eager to inform public opinion about the background to this trade (see here too) which we may contrast with the misinformation campaigns being conducted by US dealers-in-no-questions-asked antiquities which tries to play down the contribution made to their market by illicitly-obtained artefacts. Obviously a line drawn on the map acrosss the North American continent is dividing something - but what?

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Two New Blogs and a website

There are two new blogs which seem worth a visit, both of them by collectors of portable antiquities, but these are not the usual "private property/constitutional rights/hang the rest" tub thumping collecting-mantra megaphones that seem to be springing up all over the place and all saying much the same thing (usually about coins). These two are different.

The first is by David Knell, British collector of ancient lamps whom I have had occasion to mention here earlier (Collection with Attitude). His blog is simply called "Ancient Heritage" and begins with a post called
Minor antiquities: the importance of keeping records which makes some interesting points with which I am broadly in agreement. He ends it saying: "Collectors can, and must, show that instead of working against conservation, they are working with it". ( A point seemingly lost on one apparently transatlantic "Lingocreative" who commented on it at length - but adressing his remarks to me rather than David... ).

The second blog is by an American lady called Robyn who collects Egyptian antiquities, but ethically. Her blog "Pieces of the Past: Ethical Antiquities Collecting" is also getting underway, at the moment with three interesting posts, the first on "why we collect, and the problems it can bring", then a discussion of some of the arguments we have all seen offered against responsible collecting and then a mention of the recent Greek vet case. Worth keeping an eye on.

While on the subject, I suspect I have not mentioned another long-established website of interest with similar aims. British "metal detectorist" Corinne Mills has a website "Metal Detecting... What's it all about?" which is dedicated to responsible metal detecting and is worth a look. A lady with the courage of her convictions.

Prominent metal detectorist says: “Illegal metal detecting is now virtually non-existent.”

A prominent "metal detectorist" has reacted furiously to claims in a report written for English Heritage that illegal “nighthawks” are pillaging the region’s hidden history, it says in the Northern Echo today. Norman Smith, from Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, is the organizer of frequent and sometimes huge commercial artefact hunting rallies, mostly in the north of England but also at other places around the country. Smith yesterday accused English Heritage of being misleading and said: “Illegal metal detecting is now virtually non-existent.” Smith said he helped with the Nighthawking survey, carried out for English Heritage by Oxford Archaeology, and that it found the problem to be minimal. “English Heritage are notorious for anti-detecting feelings and have unsuccessfully campaigned for years to have metal detecting banned", he said.

That's funny. We all remember the Water Newton rally which Mr Smith organized, and some of us heard the stories (on the Rally UK forum I think it was) in which participants recount sitting in their tents the first night and watching the torches of the nighthawks in the adjacent fields moving about. We recall in particular Mr Smith's remarks after the Stixwould rally reported here. In Mr Smith's parting comment ("which I make in full knowledge that archaeologists visit this site"), he mentions that during the Oxford Archaeology project on nighthawking, he visited London twice at his own expense "to defend this wonderful hobby of ours" and that he did the same thing during the discussions of the Code of Practice for Rallies:
"but when I shouted from the rooftops that dishonest metal detecting was almost non-existent I showed the greatest of naiivity, and it is obvious that, although such illegal activities have diminished on scheduled sites the problem of nighthawking is still a major challenge, and the hard work of thousands of honest, genuine blokes who detect regularly is being undermined by dishonest, immoral thieving b******s, who live off the backs of the majority who are the “good guys”. The problem is we all know who they are and do nowt about it.
So the Nighthawking survey "found the problem was minimal" or was told that the problem was minimal? There is a difference Mr Smith. This well illustrates the sort of thing that the Survey was up against. Mr Smith admits freely to his fellows that there is a serious problem, but when an official attempt is made to gather facts, suddenly the "problem is minimal". We note he said he went to meet the Nighthawking survey people "to defend this wonderful hobby of ours" by trying to persuade the investigators that "dishonest metal detecting was almost non-existent". It is notable that after over a decade of liaison and strengthening the links between "detectorists" and archaeologists, that people like Mr Smith and his fellows refuse to share any information they have (and I am sure they have a lot) on illegal activity with a group of people trying to find out how we can best preserve the archaeological resource from further destruction due to the activities of these people.

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)

What is illegal artefact hunting in the UK?

The publication after a long delay of the so-called nighthawking survey raises a number of questions. Not least what on earth it was investigating. We can understand that it was not intended that the authors look at the illegal handling of portable antiquities as a whole (of which the United Kingdom has a totally deserved reputation as a hotbed) but only the search for collectables and saleable commodities in the UK’s archaeological record in violation of Britain’s all-too-lax laws. Fair enough. But the definition we are offered is incomplete. We are told “Illegal metal detecting is the search and removal of antiquities from the ground using metal detectors without the permission of the landowners or on prohibited land such as Scheduled Monuments. It is a form of theft and can be prosecuted under the Theft Act”.

Firstly, not all artefact hunting goes on with metal detectors. Those who illegally dig holes in stratified archaeological deposits on the foreshore for example use spades and sieves. Flint collectors denuding sites in national parks and other protected areas use only their eyes. A whole area of illegal activity is largely ignored in this report because it does not involve “metal detectors”. The debate on artefact hunting and collecting in Britain has become highjacked by the protagonists of the “metal detecting debate” which has clouded the central issues.

There is little attention paid however to another aspect of the problem (odd because it does involve to a large part the use of metal detectors in the UK), and that is violations of the law in Scotland. In Scotland artefact hunting is subject to more or less the same constraints in the field as south of the border. Scottish law imposes on the artefact hunter another condition to comply with the law. They are obliged to report their finds and hand them over to the Treasure Trove Unit for assessment and eventual acquisition for state collections. Taking objects from the archaeological record merely to collect them oneself or sell them is an illegal act which is depleting Scotland’s archaeological resource as much as any trespassing on a landowner’s property south of the border. The Oxford archaeology report hardly considers this issue, a whole area of loss to Britain's archaeological record is ignored in its statistics.

The label "nighthawks" is singularly unhelpful. As the report says not all illegal artefact hunting takes place at night and not all responsible legal artefact hunting takes place in the day. In fact three totally different phenomena are being lumped under this one totally inadequate term, and each has its own dynamics and remedies

1) Artefact hunting on sites protected by law (for example scheduled archaeological sites/historic monuments). The reason for the extra scale of protection is that they contain archaeological evidence known to be of national importance. Most of the people doing this know full well that the site is important, and at best they do not care whether it is protected by law or not. Are there people in the artefact hunting community who are unaware that in general there is such a thing as a site protected by law? I would think that very unlikely. There is the problem that one flat bit of a field looks the same as another and the boundaries of a scheduled area might be difficult to determine. That at least is the excuse of some that have been caught on a site with a metal detector.

2) Artefact hunting on a site where the seeker has not permission to be. In English law (whether or not its a good idea or not is debatable) it is the landowner who has stewardship of the natural and historical resources of his land and who is encouraged by various means to conserve them. It is their decision whether or not to allow a collector onto their land with the purpose of seeking archaeological collectables for entertainment and profit. Sometimes the landowner is only too eager to get a bit of the "profit" themselves (for example commercial artefact hunting "rallies"). It may be argued that some trespassers are hard core criminals out to steal, while others might be slightly dense individuals genuinely unaware that they are on private property - or who precisely they have to ask (and cannot be bothered to find out). They may feel "no harm is done" by them taking away a few bits of corroded metal when the farmer is not looking.

3) The artefact hunter will be committing an illegal act if they find something and not declare it as the law requires. In some cases it might be greed, a "finders-keepers" type situation, they do not want to surrender "their" find, because the state may take it away (actually to place in a public collection). Or it may be that they genuinely do not know they are obliged to report the find.

These are six separate situations in which artefact hunting is in conflict with Britain's liberal antiquity laws. It will be seen that three of them are due to lack of awareness while three rflect lack of concern. In the latter the people concerned regard themselves as above the law.

It is obvious that the solution to each of these six is going to be different, in some cases outreach and information campaigns may go a long way to solving the problem, in others its probably a waste of time, the hard core law breakers not only laugh at their responsible fellows for following the PAS line, but the latter often feel physically threatened by them (the Oxford team found there was a great resistance in the "detecting" community - including the NCMD - to run the risk of being seen to be informing on the law breakers) . There is no way that more "fluffy bunny" patting on the head will actually have any effect on the criminal element in the artefact hunting community.

The label "nighthawks" embodied in the brief of this report is more of a hindrance than a help to defining concepts, problems and remedies.

The tide turns for the British Antiquities market

The publication today of the Final report of the Strategic Study on Illegal artefact hunting seems to mark an important watershed in the long and sordid story of the British market in portable antiquities.

The report received surprisingly negative coverage in the British press, it has all the makings of a good story of course, loot, buried treasure, secretive night time activities, careful detective work by the investigating authorities. Probably for the first time in many years the British media came out with a barrage of unfavourable publicity for the artefact hunter and collector, usually the subject of fluffy bunny "unsung heroes" type praise. The metal detectorists were furious on the forums, over in the US officers of the ACCG were quick to come to their defence (here and here for example).

The Oxford Archaeology report has serious shortcomings, but depicts the scale of the problem as serious. It stands by the typically British policy of reasoning with the culprits, maybe if we are nice to them they will stop. I am not sure how effective this will be against the hard core of criminals who undoubtedly exist in the artefact hunting milieu who are intent on profiting from sales of stolen finds, often obtained at night during well planned and organised raids where anyone who stand in their way is threatened by physical violence.

We should recognize that there are limits to the degree public education will have an impact on this group of individuals. The report recognises this and concludes that the motor for this activity (there is a substantial analysis of eBay sales on which this is based ) is the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities. The conclusion is that the most effective means of dealing with the problem of illegal artefact hunting in the UK is to close the loopholes that allow them to find a market for the commodities they produce to make the venture worthwhile. Removing the ability to profit financially would clearly reduce the motive for these criminals to operate.

Monitoring of eBay UK by the Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum since October 2006 [main report pp 82-88] has shown that an element of the illegal movement of unreported Treasure items has been the lack of due diligence by British dealers in establishing provenance and title to sell while handling such material (hence current moves to have the Treasure Act amended to make it a requirement for all who come into possession of Treasure to have an obligation to report it). This monitoring of sales of antiquities listings on eBay shows a steady rise in the number of unprovenanced British antiquities on sale each month. Some of these at least seem likely to be the products of “nighthawking”, but which ones?

It is heartening to see that as a result of this report, British archaeologists are at last looking at the possibilities of regulating the local antiquities market. They are taking a vivid interested in the regulations reported here which were introduced last year on eBay in Germany, Austria and Switzerland which have shown that the auction house is prepared to take stricter action than has been the case so far in the UK. The Council for British Archaeology and PAS are now suggesting that Britain should be pressing eBay to follow suit in the UK to close down online auctions of illicitly acquired material.

The Director of the CBA suggested today at the launch of the Illegal artefact hunting report that there is a need for the introduction of a new criminal offence for a person to deal in such objects without being able to produce a clear modern provenance. Such a reform in attitudes and legislation would introduce the necessary transparency into dealings in cultural objects and ensure prospectively that persons dealt only in such objects with a recorded and substantiated background. Apparenly such a proposal is currently being discussed by a working group of the APPAG with the aim of identifying way add this to the legislation of England and Wales. There will be a review of the 1996 Treasure Act later in the year which will provide an opportunity to discuss this proposal with policy makers.

This all is bad news for the advocates of the current no-questions-asked market for portable antiquities which acts as a cover for the quantities of looted and smuggled material entering certain markets. They have until now had the "shining example" of Britain with its "wise" heritage laws which allow a question-free environment for the circulation of all manner of "pieces of the past". Now it turns out that the British are questioning the wisdom of this oversight, we may expect foreign lobby groups to start poking their noses into how this "source country" should treat the archaeological heritage found within its territorial borders as they do with those in SE Europe and the Middle East.

What Kind of Nighthawking (sic) Has Declined?

I have previously discussed the ideas of Derek Fincham on the Portable Antiquities Scheme of England and Wales here before. In his recent text (A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin
International Journal of Cultural Property, Vol. 15) discussed here earlier, he seems to want to see its approach as some kind of panacea which if adopted elsewhere would solve a lot of problems, like reduce looting. Earlier here, I questioned his asserting that looting had been reduced in England and Wales because of the activities of the Scheme. The discussion now starts up again after the publication of the Nighthawking Survey Final Report. On this basis Fincham writes “It appears that illegal metal detecting in England has declined since 1995, the point at which the Portable Antiquities Scheme first began its efforts” (let’s leave aside the question that the PAS actually began in 1997) and
The most interesting revelation of the report is the suggestion that metal detecting has substantially decreased since the PAS began. In 1995, 188 scheduled monuments were reported damaged; in 2008, that number was 70. In 1995, 74% of archaeological units reported their sites had been molested; in 2008 that number is 28%. I take that as pretty strong support for the proposition I argued for in my recent piece on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin, IJCP (2008)".
It is interesting to compare that with what the PAS itself is claiming, there is a subtle difference which Fincham seems not to recognise:

The Report shows that Nighthawking seems to have declined on two counts compared with an earlier survey in 1995, although there is still a significant problem with Nighthawking down the eastern side of England from Yorkshire through Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
Part of the problem here is that the label "nighthawking" is not terribly useful to define anything much since it refers to about six different things (see my post on the definition of this label above). The PAS points out that in "two counts" there has been a change in the situation since 1995. In fact these two counts are examples of the same kind of offence, people deliberately using metal detectors where they should not (SAMs and raiding archaeological excavations in progress). Quite frankly, when we are dealing with the sort of individuals that are deliberately targeting archaeological excavations or scheduled monuments, it is terribly naïve to imagine that the PAS is actually making any difference to "attitudes". I suggest Mr Fincham should join a metal detecting forum and ask there about the possibilities of responsible artefact hunters or anyone else "changing the attitudes" of the hard core element before accepting that it is possible or even likely that any of them would try (the phrases "tyre slashing" and "GBH" are ones that I primarily relate to cases I know of).

Certainly the PAS could be having effect on the dozier metal detectorists who "did not know" that Britain has a law of trespass, or that you cannot just walk over the nearest English Heritage guardianship site with a metal detector (cases have been known!). This however is only part of the problem - and arguably the easier part to resolve.

So what is the situation? What is actually happening? The actual results of the survey were diasppointing, very few people came forward and volunteered information (this in fact was to be expected, I have no idea who planned the project in the form it was). The discussion of the results and their interpretation is scattered throughout the recent report (which generally is a pretty unsatisfactory piece of writing). Nevertheless the situation is in fact relatively clear-cut.

In comparing the present results with those of the CBA/EH survey published in 1995 we should bear in mind that the latter was looking at a specific range of problems in a specific region. It therefore looked only at raids (in England alone) by nighthawks on scheduled sites and archaeological excavations in progress, two areas of primary concern in the archaeological community in the 1990s. These problems had however begun already in the 1970s. What was not looked at in 1993 (1995) was the scale of artefact hunting on unscheduled archaeological sites.

With regard the decline in looting on scheduled sites (not all of which fall into the category of those perceived as 'productive' by the nighthawks), it is important to note what the authors of the 2009 report themselves point out. On page 91 of the report we find the following explanation “reasons for a move away from Nighthawking on SMs include the suggestion that many of these SMs are ‘played out’, either through detecting or the effects of agriculture […]. After many years of Nighthawking the number of finds on many sites is thought to be too low for Nighthawks to bother with and Nighthawks are now moving to unscheduled sites where more can be found.” This is entirely explicable, the archaeological resource is finite. One cannot go on year after year since the 1970s extracting material from a finite body without it one day finishing on many of these sites. If this explanation of the observed effect is correct, it means that the archaeological resources on many of Britain's scheduled sites is now so severely depleted that they are not commercially exploitable. This means of course that their archaeological 'signature' [Report p. 2] has also been permanently deleted as a result of current inability to act against these people.

As for the raids on excavations, this is also discussed in the report, on page 91-2, where it is pointed out that since the mid 1990s there has been a change in the organization of excavations in the UK which has meant that now they are more frequently integrated into development projects where there is a greater concern with security “with plant to protect as well as Health and Safety issues. The installation of physical barriers and surveillance on sites […] make it more difficult [for looters] to target these archaeological excavations”.

But what about clandestine looting of unscheduled, often rural, sites? Has this too "decreased"? On page 91 of the report the authors suggest that the depletion of the material to be gained from scheduled sites is probably matched by an increase in the clandestine exploitation of the more productive (so mostly coin-rich [point 9.1.9 on p. 90] Roman sites and Early Medieval cemeteries report p. 90) unscheduled sites which are now in increasing danger.

Despite the obvious difficulties Oxford Archaeology had getting information, there are several pieces of evidence to suggest that there are less grounds for optimism here. We have discussed Mr Browning and his problems at Icklingham, but moreover heard what a local Suffolk metal detectorist had to say about the situation on farms around his. We heard of the situation at Stixwourth. Sadly the Nighthawking Survey Report does not actually publish details of the incidents reported to it, so we do not know whether they were included in the data they discussed.

On pages 31-2 of the report however is a brief presentation of the results of a regional survey (COSMIC) in the East Midlands which suggests that across this region as a whole of the 40 farmers who responded, 17.5% are suffering from Nighthawking of both scheduled and unscheduled sites on their property. Only one of the sites reported as having been looted in this survey had independently been reported, which implies that the Nighthawk Survey was not being informed by any means of all sites being looted, and that landowners are a key source for this missing information.

The COSMIC survey area is in a significant location, astride the eastern zone where the Nighthawking Survey suggests looting is much more prevalent, but extending into the Midlands where current evidence suggests the phenomenon occurs to a lesser extent. If therefore it can be treated (for lack of better evidence after a 100 000 pound government sponsored survey) as representative of much of Britain, and bearing in mind that in the UK there are approximately 300,000 active farms, 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. Even if we assume (since not all of Britain is lowland like the COSMIC survey area) that this figure is too high (for example three or even five times too high), it still gives pause for thought, bearing in mind that the total number of active metal detectorists in the country is something of the order of 10 000. There clearly is a need for further discussion (and sadly further investigation).

Far from the PAS being able to cope with the problem, it would seem that the postulated final denudation of the metal finds from the scheduled sites no longer being raided took place while the PAS was in operation. It is equally clear that the areas identified by the Nighthawking Survey Report as the most heavily affected are those in which there has been extensive PAS outreach (Norfolk and Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Kent for example). It seems to me dangerous to present the PAS as the panacea for the looting problem, the situation is far more complext than generally appreciated.

Despite the overall optimistic tone of parts of the Nighthawking Survey Report about the scale of illegal artefact hunting (written on commission for British Heritage, responsible - after all - for current policies), other parts of it give grounds for deep concern. This fact was picked up by most of the major British newspapers who wrote of the problem of looting in somewhat alarmist terms. It's nice to know they care.

The Nighthawking Survey Summary document

Today two documents were released, above I have discussed the main one (212 pages), the full report of the Nighthawking Survey (above). This is apparently only available as a download. The second one is only twenty pages long, printed on paper but is available as a download too. It is presumably intended as a summary for the general public of the main conclusions and recommendations of the full report. The trouble is it is not. Not really.
This text gives the impression of being by a totally different author from the main report, and quite frankly is an atrocious piece of work. Although the main report bears traces of the apparent pro-detecting sentiments of the authors, this summary document oozes it. Let us take Page 3 in a document about illegal artefact hunting: "in the absence of real evidence, feelings have often run high and the reputations of responsible metal detectorists have suffered". One might ask, what "real evidence" has the Oxford Archaeology team come up with that could save the reputations of responsible "metal detectorists", and from what? What have the latter got to do with criminal activity? It turns out that the key to resolving the problem is not only to let people know what-a-jolly-good-thing-responsible-metal- detecting is [p. 12] but also "provide opportunities for legal detecting" [p. 8], by "supporting properly organized metal detecting rallies" like the text infers the PAS does [p.12], heaven forbid that a farmer should "impose a total ban on metal detecting" [p. 8] on his own land as a response to being raided... One way, we are told, "proven to be effective in preventing Nighthawking is to allow responsible metal detectorists to detect (sic) a site" [p.9] in other words take it all away to their ephemeral personal artefact collections? Yes, that would stop the nighthawking of that piece of land, but also it rather defeats the object - which is site preservation. There's some not-very-joined-up-thinking going on here. Recommendation four to stop "nighthawking" is a real side-splitter. "Publicise the positive effects of responsible metal detecting..." [p.12] "Part of the problem is that the subject is clouded by ignorance and prejudice on both sides of the debate with self-appointed champions of both extremes broadcasting antagonistic propaganda via the various available media, serving only to perpetuate a pointless conflict" [p. 12]. Apparently "organizations like the PAS and NCMD are building bridges [...] and making constructive contributions to the debates on the various web forums". That's a laugh, especially with regard to the PAS who make a concerted effort to keep OUT of debates on any forums (including their own - now defunct).* I'd like to ask the Oxford Archaeology when it concerns the commercial or otherwise exploitation of the of archaeological record as a source of collectables, IS it actually a "pointless conflict"? What is "pointless" about questioning policies which go against everything modern archaeology stands for? In referring to "both extremes" I assume the text's author is referring on the one hand to the archaeological resource protection lobby echoing the ACCG labelling of them as "radical archaeologists". Who would Oxford Archaeology see as the other "extreme" - advocates of illegal artefact hunting. Where please can we see the "propaganda" of the self-appointed champions of illegal artefact hunting in the UK media? I think we have a right to know where Oxford Archaeology is finding this stuff, otherwise these are just so many empty words which have nothing to do with the activities of criminal artefact hunters. Personally I do not think the key to tackling heritage crime is even more of the fluffy bunny pro detecting propaganda ("examples of the constructive use of metal detectors should be publicised more widely... " p. 13) which simply confuses public perception of the nature of the problems facing archaeology. We have enough of that. We do need more informed debate on portable antiquity collecting as a whole which forms a basis for the whole problem. *As for the PAS engaging in debate on the forums... it is instructive to take a look at the PAS blog run by Dan Pett. There we read "If you are interested in discussing the Scheme’s role in the production of this report, please contact Michael Lewis or Roger Bland in our Central Unit on 0207 323 8611." Who is that aimed at? Who would be perhaps concerned at the "role" of PAS in the production of a report on illegal artefact hunting, and why? Why can PAS not simply take part in a debate on the issues it raises and not invite their partners to discuss it with the head and deputy head of the scheme quietly and privately over the phone? All very odd.

Vignette: Cover of the summary text (Oxford Archaeology)

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