Sunday 17 February 2013

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Huge Numbers of Nighthawks "Countrywide"

There is another aspect to the whole matter raised by metal detectorist "Countrywide" who (as I discuss in the post immediately above) accuses me of being "the wrong side of the law" because I discuss where an archaeological site may be on the evidence already in the public domain. This individual, like most artefact hunters in the UK, considers that revealing where any archaeological items have been found is tantamount to issuing an invitation for the site of discovery to be robbed by illegal artefact hunters (those so-called "nighthawks"). He or she apparently considers that mentioning such information into the public domain is actually a crime. The PAS from the very beginning of its activity has been forced to hide any information about exact findspots (and even to make up misleading names for findspots*) to conceal even the most basic information from the "nighthawks" that are among those using the "database", which thus becomes a database of incomplete data. In the next breath both metal detector using artefact hunters and collectors - as well as, which is really sad, their PAS-partners - will assure us all that the illegal seekers are really only a "minority" and other artefact hunters (our "partners") are in no way associated with them. 

It strikes me that there is something not quite right in all this.These data are not being kept hidden because the threat is a minor one. The smoke-and-mirrors, and hiding information from the public that pays for its gathering, by definition costs time and money, commodities the PAS constantly complains it lacks. The only justification for all this  must therefore be that the risk is a substantial one. That means if the information is released, it poses a substantial risk that the site will, indeed, be looted in a short time. For example, "Countrywide" alleges that the availability of the information where an excavation of a Bronze Age hoard had taken place resulted in it being looted at least once within three months. His or her text draws attention to a problem that quite clearly the significance of which is really not being presented to the public in the manner in which it should.

A while ago an English Heritage survey (the MARS report) estimated that there were about a million archaeological sites in England. That is a million spots where artefact hunters can already go and hunt for artefacts, many of them are listed in publicly available records. Even if that were not the case (and potentially overlapping with them anyway) the PAS database has [today] 840,399 objects within 542,313 records. That's half a million findspots. All being hidden so artefact hunters cannot loot them, as they would - the story goes - if the information was released. Furthermore many of those sites (most of them) were reported as a result of metal detecting, so that's half a million sites productive of "metal detector finds". On top of that, some 800 Treasure finds are now being reported annually. The information about them too is hidden, because there is a substantial risk that if the information were released, those sites would be looted by those illegal artefact hunters. Let's round that up to 750 Treasure finds over 15 years, that's some 11250 findspots kept secret. So that's something like 554000 findspots that have to be kept hidden because if the information about any one of them were released (as "Countrywide" claims happened in the case of the Poulton Hoard), it would within a very short time be robbed by nighthawks.

Can you see where this is leading? How prevalent would "nighthawking" have to be in England and Wales to present the substantial threat that 554000 productive sites would be robbed (perhaps within a year or two)? If there are only 10000 metal detectorists in the UK, potential illegal activity on such a scale would mean a very high proportion of them turn their hand to "hawking" from time to time. If we raise the number of active detectorists in the region to 16000 (my latest estimate based on PAS information) that conclusion is hardly changed.  It is 34 sites threatened for every active metal detectorist.

It seems to me that the PAS going along with the notion that if the location information is properly presented, it is placing each and every site reported by artefact hunters in substantial danger of being looted simply does not square with what they are telling the outside world about the small number of "black sheep that get the hobby a bad name". It would seem that - by their own acts - they are demonstrating that they know that not to be true, that in order to present any sort of a threat to 554000 sites justifying the cost-adding smoke and mirrors to keep that information out of the public domain, the number of those "black sheep" concerned would have to be very high indeed. The PAS reveal that they know that the number of illegal metal detectorists is much higher than the official 'statistics' claim. But - in order not to 'rock the boat' - they are keeping very, very, quiet about it. Does that not in effect mean that a public body charged with informing the public about portable antiquity issues is in fact engaged in misleading public opinion? 

I think we and (truly) responsible metal detectorists owe Mr or Ms "Countrywide" our gratitude for revealing that for us. Maybe the PAS would like to comment?

Or maybe now England and Wales have more effective rural crime and heritage measures in place, they simply release the findspot data (it is the public's heritage, the public have a right to know what is being taken from it where), and let s see just how much nighthawk convictions go up. 

* Like the "Staffordshire Hoard" which in reality lies just a few dozen metres inside the county boundary in an outlying part right down the south west corner.

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