Thursday 5 February 2009

The scale of Illegal artefact hunting in Scotland

We are promised that very soon the report on illegal artefact hunting in the UK (the so-called "Nighthawking Survey") will be published. Some results have been leaked which sound a bit dubious, so we are all eager to see the basis for these remarks.

The publication in Scotland of a Code of practice about Treasure trove in Scotland sets out the obligations of finders of archaeological artefacts (more than 300 years old) in that country. As everybody with a metal detector in the UK knows - or should know, Scotland has different laws to England and Wales (and Northern Ireland differs from both). It's not too confusing however as all archaeological finds must, by law, be reported when they may be retained by the crown (whose property they are, in which case the finder gets a reward and the finds go to a public collection) or released back to the finder to do with as they please. To engage in the latter without going through the former formality is illegal. Anyone failing to declare a find risks a potential prison sentence. That's what every metal detectorist in Scotland (and people buying artefacts from them) should know.

The Treasure reports show that annually about 300 or so finds are reported to the Treasure Trove Unit in Edinburgh. There are however in Scotland probably around 1000 metal detectorists - so it seems pretty clear that by no means are all of them obeying the law. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, most of them seem to be practicing their hobby totally disregarding the law, and disregarding the right of their fellow citizens to have access to information about the past which they want to take away in tangible pieces.

A newspaper account about the new code (Julia Horton Treasure hunters urged to read the rules before seeking their fortune, The Herald, February 04 2009) asserts that "up to 10,000 objects including silver coins and jewels are now found each year", meaning that the 300 reported items are a mere token of what is disappearing from the archaeological record annually in Scotland too. That is despite the very clear laws. That is despite the outreach that has been done to tell artefact hunters of their obligations. That is despite Scottish metal detectorists not being uneducated toothless peasants who know-no-better living in villages "each of which has its own melting pot" to which to take the metal scrap scavenged off the fields by subsistence diggers as some apologists for the "no-questions-asked" antiquities market would have us believe is the situation in all the "source countries".

The reaction to this news on a US metal detectorists' forum was revealing: A certain "Emdees" writes: Yikes! Hope they never do that in the U.S.! and a "RickO" replied...Try as I may, I will never understand belief is that found items belong to the finder - period. Hmmm. Still, over most of the US there's not much chance of metal detectorists coming across too many metal artefacts older than 300 years, is there? I suspect that this is part of the problem US collectors have understanding attitudes of those of us who actually live and work in the "source countries" of the collectables they covet.

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