Monday 14 February 2011

Repeat the UK Mantra: "Night Hawkers Bad - Metal Detectorists Good"

Acting rather belatedly, English Heritage has launched a "campaign" to "combat criminals who steal from historic buildings and wreck archaeological dig sites". One focus of this initiative is to attempt to "clamp down" on "practices such as "nighthawking" where thieves use metal detectors to find buried historic objects". This campaign also highlights the damage done to the historic environment by other antisocial behaviour such as arson, graffiti and vehicle damage, and architectural thefts and unlawful alteration and demolition of listed buildings (Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent - that's a turnup for the books!) 'English Heritage launch campaign against 'night hawkers'', Daily Telegraph's 'Earth News' section, 11 Feb 2011).
More than 200 [archaeological] sites were attacked between 1995 and 2008 by ‘night hawkers’, according to English Heritage. At the same time the number of metal detectors in the country has increased to around 20,000, according to the National Council of Metal Detecting. However the body insisted that the majority are law-abiding citizens that ask permission first.
A notable comment was that of our old friend, Trevor Austin, General Secretary of the National Council of Metal Detecting, who said:
"...people can make money from small finds such as buckles and coins. But major treasures are extremely rare and impossible to sell on. People may certainly take up the hobby for that reason [high profile finds] but will soon discover there is as much chance of winning the lottery".
Well, actually with some 800 cases reported a year in the UK, a bit of maths suggests that statistically if there are 10 000 people doing it regularly, you have only to keep at it twelve and a half years to have the chance of finding Treasure. Substantially better odds than doing the lottery, Mr Austin. Even if the number of metal detectorists is closer to the 20 000 mark now.
English Heritage are teaming up with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as well as groups such as the National Trust, the Church of England and the Woodland Trust to try and tackle the problem. The initiative will focus on illegal metal detecting, [...] and unlawful excavation and removal of artefacts from sites. As part of the initiative local history societies and neighbourhood watch will be encouraged to look out for ‘night hawkers’.
So no 24/7 site guards for all the lootable sites in the country as US collectors say is the "only" way which a nation whose heritage is threatened by looting should be looking after it. Just local citizens and the Church (!). So what are they going to do, excommunicate metal detectorists?

Baroness Andrews, chairwoman of English Heritage, said society needs to work together to protect treasures.
Over in Lincolnshire this campaign was reported in the local press (Crackdown on metal-detecting criminals who steal heritage and damage dig sites'). Tom Lane, senior archaeologist at Heritage Lincolnshire, said:
"Illegal metal detecting can cause damage apart from digging up fields. It can remove objects from their archaeological context so if, at a later stage, we did a proper excavation then there would just be holes and things.
"Holes and things" however Mr Lane is what is left by legal metal detecting too. I wonder if Mr Lane can explain to his readers why from an archaeological point of view holes in the archaeological record any less of a hole when dug by an artefact hunter doing his exploitation in accord with Britain's pathetically inadequate archaeological heritage protection laws? I bet he can't.

But just so the poor dears don't get too much bad press, as is de rigeur in any article on artefact collecting in the UK, the obligatory PAS mantra is duly trotted out by the dutiful journalists following the lead set by UK "archaeological outreach" in all its sham glory. Lincolnshire County Council Finds Liaison Officer Adam Daubney reading from his prompt card is therefore quoted as saying:
"The majority of metal detectorists carry out their hobby legitimately, voluntarily reporting their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. These enthusiasts have a genuine interest in the past and their finds are helping to advance knowledge of our heritage. In Lincolnshire alone, legitimate metal detectorists have reported 28,000 finds during the past ten years. These have led to the discovery of 175 new sites ranging from Roman temples to medieval markets. Unfortunately, there are those whose actions are criminal – damaging our fine heritage – and Lincolnshire County Council supports any initiative to tackle this and any other sort of heritage crime".
Bleh! If there are only 10 000 active metal detectorists in the UK, in Lincolnshire statistically there should be 119 of them. In 2007 Mr Daubney in fact recorded finds from 161 of them (perhaps some from out of county on commercial rallies), 110 of them metal detecting club members (but only 17 other members of the public) [source PAS 2007 Annual Report pp 274-5]. According to the Heritage Action Erosion Counter algorithm however, those 161 detectorists would have found in a year's artefact hunting 4871 recordable objects (so 48,710 in a decade) - whereas the number of findspot records resulting in the public record in 2007 was 1408 [PAS annual Report p. 268]. So even here (a county with relatively high reporting rate) two thirds of the "legitimate" artefact finds are not being reported in the last year for which official figures are published (the figure is in fact higher as the HA figures are deliberately conservative). Of course if the NCMD estimate of 20 000 detectorists in the country is correct, these figures are doubly bad.

As for "discovering new sites", the same PAS report shows (p. 33 table 1, figures for Roman to Medieval sites) that the artefacts entered in the PAS record came from 165 new sites, but the exploitation for collectables of 139 sites already known in the HER. That is 45% of the data are coming from the destruction of known archaeological sites. How "legitimate" is that a use of the archaeological record ("our fine heritage")?

Vignette: metal detecting (Photo: ALAMY)

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