Monday, 16 February 2009

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.

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