PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

1. Before the Nighthawking Survey

Before the commissioning of The Nighthawking Survey (Wilson 2009a) from Oxford Archaeology 'nighthawking', or illicit metal detecting on and removal of artefacts from archaeological sites, had been the subject of little concerted action from the heritage community as a whole. This was despite the considerable anguish and anger that the issue generated, among both archaeologists and responsible metal-detector users. In the 1990s the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) had undertaken a survey of illicit detecting on scheduled monuments and excavations in England on behalf of English Heritage (Dobinson and Denison 1995). Beyond that, however, much has been written about issues around relationships between archaeology and metal detecting, mostly prompted by the establishment and remit of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS); Thomas (2009, 5) provides a brief summary of the type of issues some in the archaeological community have with the PAS. The publication of Metal Detecting and Archaeology (Thomas and Stone 2009) provided a useful and timely basis for subsequent analysis of the issues surrounding metal detecting and archaeology. Prior to that publication, individuals had raised the profile of the subject, albeit often almost as an adjunct to the trade in illicit antiquities (for example Gregory 1983; Addyman 1995; Addyman and Brodie 2002), while Rescue and the CBA raised the profile of the problems through the archaeological press and ongoing campaigning over many years.

Dobinson and Denison, in their 1995 study, sought to quantify 'illicit detecting on scheduled sites and excavations, and assess the number of prosecutions and convictions for offences against the law'. They recorded:

'188 scheduled ancient monuments that have certainly been subject to illicit detecting since 1988 - though the actual number raided will undoubtedly be greater - perhaps far greater - than that figure. In addition, we found that 37 (74%) of the 50 professional units we surveyed have had experience of raids on excavations.' (http://old.britarch.ac.uk/detecting/ch7.html; Dobinson and Denison 1995).

Despite the Dobinson and Denison report going on to note that 'some sites suffer from chronic, quasi-industrialised looting', far from acting as a call to arms there was relatively little follow-up beyond the efforts of individual archaeologists and landowners. With respect to the latter, it is perhaps salutary to note the experiences of John Browning, the owner of Icklingham Roman small town, who has for over 30 years fought a largely lone battle to protect the site. As well as the loss and illegal export to the United States of the well-known Icklingham Bronzes (Browning 1995), the site has suffered frequent attacks. Despite Mr Browning's persistence, there was an increasingly inadequate response from the legal system, with the penalties imposed at times being pitched at a very low level as the following extract from The Nighthawking Survey demonstrates:

'Some 45-50 individuals have been prosecuted over the years, a recent case reaching its conclusion in February 2008, when three individuals were fined £250-£500 and ordered to pay £250 in costs each (East Anglian Daily News 26/02/08). Not all prosecutions have resulted in the same level of penalty. In one instance the offender, caught on site, was bound over with £38 costs, although his equipment was confiscated. The metal detectors were also confiscated from another pair caught on site in 2006. Their fines were £150 for theft and £150 for illegal metal detecting with £55 costs.
Following harvest in 2008 a number of raids occurred, during one of which four offenders were caught and given fines of £80 for theft. There was no confiscation of equipment.' (Oxford Archaeology 2009a, 58).

At Corbridge, featured as a case study by Dobinson and Denison (1995), English Heritage were forced over several years to resort to employing overnight security guards to patrol the scheduled area around the Guardianship monument following ploughing given the frequency and severity of attacks by nighthawks (Kate Wilson, English Heritage North-East Office pers. comm.).


 PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements

File last updated: Thu Feb 28 2013