Monday, 16 February 2009

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.

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