2. The Nighthawking Survey - Content and Conclusions

Faced with evidence that illicit detecting remained a problem English Heritage, on behalf of a consortium of heritage organisations including Cadw, Historic Scotland , National Museum Wales and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), commissioned Oxford Archaeology to undertake the research that led to the publication of The Nighthawking Survey (Oxford Archaeology 2009a; 2009b). In addition to funding from the bodies listed, the survey team also received assistance from Guernsey Museums Service, Jersey Heritage Trust, Manx National Heritage, National Museums Scotland and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

The project was received sceptically by many in the responsible metal detecting community and their representative bodies; the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) and Federation of Independent Detectorists (FID). There were strongly expressed suggestions that the project was a smokescreen designed to make a case for restricting or totally banning metal detecting (see Wilson forthcoming). Indeed, it is possible to see the period of the survey and that immediately following as a low point in relations between detectorists and some other elements of the historic environment sector.

'Illicit detecting' is by definition illegal activity, whether it is unlicensed metal detecting in protected places or on designated sites such as scheduled monuments, or detecting on undesignated land without the landowner's permission. As a consequence, and as expected by the commissioning organisations, Oxford Archaeology, like Dobinson and Denison before them, found it hard to acquire adequately verified data. This was not least because, in the case of the Oxford Archaeology project, many metal-detector users refused to provide information. It would also seem that, in developing a commission that looked beyond scheduled monuments to include the investigation of 'the extent of damage to archaeological sites in the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies caused by illegal searching and removal of antiquities' (Oxford Archaeology 2009a, Appendix 1), somehow the sponsoring bodies had touched a nerve among some in the detecting community. One such view was expressed in a substantial contribution to the Readers Letters page of The Searcher (a popular metal detecting magazine in the UK). This suggested that Oxford Archaeology had somehow exceeded their brief by looking at 'all illegal searching i.e. on land where the land owner's permission had not been granted' (McGorry 2010), rather than locations deemed to be 'archaeological sites'. Whether such a view reflects a belief that criminality away from locations listed in Historic Environment Records is acceptable, or a belief that looting material from such locations does not impact on our collective ability to understand our past better, is unclear. However, it does fly in the face of the oft-repeated, and entirely accurate, claims by representatives of the responsible detecting community that appropriately recorded and legally found material has added many new sites to Historic Environment Records, to the benefit of all. We hope that few in the detecting community would agree with McGorry's views; illegally detected finds wherever they are from, and the unrecorded looting of sites, benefits no one other than the criminals involved.

Headline figures from The Nighthawking Survey suggested that there had been a decline in recorded cases of illicit metal detecting on scheduled sites, which led some in the detecting community to claim that there was not really a problem, that the resources put into the survey had been wasted and, by implication, evidence of nighthawking on undesignated sites was irrelevant. However, a targeted survey of farmers in the East Midlands, previously contacted by Oxford Archaeology during research for the Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation (COSMIC) project, suggested that land owned by over 17% of them had suffered from illicit detecting, a significantly higher figure than that suggested by the overall Nighthawking Survey (Oxford Archaeology 2009a, 31-32).

The survey made seven recommendations, supported by a broader discussion of implementation issues (Oxford Archaeology 2009a, 108-17), which were directed to the historic environment sector as a whole, not just English Heritage and the other national statutory bodies. Those recommendations were:

Of these, some have been or are being implemented, others have been overtaken by events and some have been modified in light of various issues. The position at the time of writing, September 2012, is described below.

Funding of the PAS was secured during the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), albeit at a reduced level, and management of the PAS has been transferred to the British Museum (see, for example, Gill 2010, 33). While the survival of the PAS is to be welcomed, the reduction in capacity enforced through the CSR settlement has inevitably impacted on what it is able to offer to its various users.

Attempts by the PAS and the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group (APPAG) to persuade the online auction site eBay UK to introduce more stringent monitoring of their sales of antiquities have met with no success. While eBay UK is willing to do what is necessary to comply with UK law, they will not exceed that base level. The introduction of more rigorous controls by eBay in Germany, Switzerland and Austria reflects the stronger legal safeguards with respect to antiquities sales enshrined in their respective national laws.

Online Guidance for Landowners, Occupiers and Tenant Farmers has been produced by the PAS with the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) in cooperation with the Portable Antiquities Advisory Group, which includes representatives of heritage bodies and metal detecting organisations.

The creation of a central database of metal detecting incidents has been rejected by the national statutory bodies that might have been expected to lead on it, for a number of reasons. There were clear issues about what could be recorded with respect to personal information, particularly with respect to alleged incidents and potential offenders. However, this element of the recommendations has largely been overtaken by the development of the Heritage Crime Initiative (now Heritage Crime Programme) and the incorporation of crime-related data into existing systems. Equally, the associated suggestions with respect to developing better intelligence and the need to develop guidance for the police, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Magistrates have also been swept up in the development of responses to heritage crime (see below).

Within the historic environment sector, publicity with regard to the benefits of responsible metal detecting has largely fallen to the PAS through the Scheme Annual Reports, and the reporting of cases under the provisions of the Treasure Act. As would be expected, the metal detecting press has also carried many positive reports and in addition both Current Archaeology and British Archaeology magazines have carried features or editorial comment (for example Pitts 2009; Current Archaeology 2010). The discovery of spectacular, responsibly recovered hoards such as the Staffordshire and Frome Hoards has guaranteed widespread publicity. Some in the historic environment sector, including one of the authors of this article (Wilson 2009b), have questioned the potential consequences of such discoveries. In a similar vein, the recent 'Britain's Secret Treasures' series on ITV, with its emphasis on value, has caused further disquiet among some in the archaeological community (for example, see Apparently unremarked upon, but potentially damaging to the archaeological community, was the implied suggestion in one programme that archaeologists, like metal-detector users, could potentially benefit from rewards for discoveries classified as Treasure; a suggestion that is contrary to Section 52 of The Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice (2nd Revision. DCMS 2006, 29). With respect to potential, and no doubt unintended, illegal consequences of the series there seems to be evidence it has fuelled an increase in detector sales with Britain's largest retailer of detecting equipment apparently seeing record sales according to Heritage Action. One metal-detector user, 'Seanthecelt', is quoted in the Heritage Action article and raises obvious and understandable concerns about the impact on the responsible hobby of a wave of new un- or under-informed treasure chasers: "Regarding newcomers to the hobby, so far this series hasn't made a single reference to the law, Scheduled sites, getting landowners permission or any of the 'minor details' involved. It's going to cause a lot of pro[b]lems for us if the programme-makers don't make the rules clear...Those affected by gold-fever will simply buy a detector and go where they fancy, their defence 'well no one said anything about laws on that telly programme'. A case of damage-limitation missed.". In effect the programme may have created a new generation of unintentional, but potential extremely damaging criminals (i.e. 'nighthawks'), even if they make their 'innocent mistakes' in daylight.

The final suggestion, that detecting be integrated into the archaeological process, had in fact been implemented by many in the archaeological community in advance of the Nighthawking Survey. This can be seen, for example, in Our Portable Past (English Heritage 2006) and the English Heritage project at Groundwell Ridge, Swindon, in 2003-2005 that was undertaken in cooperation with the Wyvern Historical and Detecting Society (Morley and Wilson in prep. a; in prep. b). The incorporation of metal detecting, or at least metal-detector users, into development-led projects has perhaps lagged behind and possible reasons for that will be discussed later.


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