Nighthawkers are Robbing England of its Past
Illegal treasure hunters are increasingly raiding ancient sites in England and authorities have petitioned for the public’s help in stopping these deplorable “nighthawkers robbing the past.”
Conservation charity English Heritage have announced that incidents of illegal “nighthawking” doubled in 2019 compared to 2017 numbers, and furthermore, last December was the worst month for reported incidents in more than four years; with criminals targeting some of Britain's most historic sites including medieval castles, Roman forts, battlefields, and abbeys.
Spirited Away and Lost Forever
These increasing crime numbers are being caused by a surge in the number of ‘nighthawkers’ or ‘nighthawks’- people who illegally, stealthily metal detect under the cover of darkness. English Heritage has now called for public support. According to a report in the Daily Mail , English Heritage Chief executive Kate Mavor urges anyone who witnesses any kind of suspicious activity to call the police in an effort to catch the criminals “robbing us of our past.”
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Among the better known sites targeted by illegal detecting are the 11th century Battle of Hastings battlefield , Battle Abbey , Goodrich Castle , and Old Sarum ; and while the charity is working with police, the executive petitioned for the public's help because “once items are spirited away they can never be replaced,” and she added that all evidence of those who went before us is “lost forever”.
Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the site of Salisbury's original cathedral, and the sites of the Battle of Hastings in East Sussex and Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire were among the ancient locations hardest hit by “nighthawks” and Mark Harrison, head of crime strategy at Historic England, said Illegal metal detecting is “not a victimless crime” when artifacts are removed from sites carelessly with no regard for their original context.’
Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire has been hit hard by illegal metal detecting. ( david hughes /Adobe Stock)
Metal Detectors Don’t Nighthawk, Criminals Nighthawk
English Heritage manage more than 400 sites and most are unstaffed and free to enter, but in view of these new crime statistics the charity is now reviewing its security arrangements. English Heritage say in 2019 there were “12 recorded incidents of illegal metal detecting at its sites,” with four sites alone targeted last December and up to 75 illegal holes dug at each site.
While this situation is obviously infinitely less socially problematic than the US gun problem, stick with me here - the same argument used by pro-gun lobbyists can be applied in England: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” An Oxplore article asks “what about the killer behind the trigger? Could the problem be more to do with people than guns?”
Well, neither do metal detectors switch themselves on and go night hawking themselves, so it is very important that these English Heritage reports do not damage the reputation of what has become an exceptionally popular outdoor hobby since metal detection units hit a price point in the late 1970s making them available to the masses.
Metal detecting had been a popular hobby since the late 1970s. ( CC0)
On the Up Side…
Not only is metal detecting a particularly social pastime and a great way of maintaining and increasing one’s fitness, but it is also an important archaeological discipline that is worth its weight in gold, and then some! In April last year I wrote an Ancient Origins news article about four amateur metal detectorists partaking in a four day long rally in Buckinghamshire, England, who unearthed a hoard of over “550 rare gold and silver coins” dating to over 600 years old. Including “12 extremely rare” Black Death era coins. A Daily Mail report said the coins were estimated to be worth around “£150,000 British pounds ($195,000 US dollars).”
12 exceptionally rare coins were part of the Hambleden Hoard find. (paul cee/ YouTube)
Then in August last year another Ancient Origins news piece written by my colleague Ed Whelan discussed the great fortune of English metal detecting couple, Adam Staples and his partner Lisa Grace, from Derby, who together unearthed a hoard of silver coins from the famous Battle of Hastings worth in the region of between 3 and 5 million British pounds, or roughly 4 to 6 million US dollars.
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But on the Other Side of the Coin…
While 99.9% of English metal detector enthusiasts are law abiding citizens, there is indeed a dark faction within their ranks and the “nighthawkers” are among their numbers. An October 2019 news article published in the Daily Telegraph told the story of a criminal case in Worcester Crown Court in which four men, including “George Powell, 38, and Layton Davies, 51” were accused of stealing a treasure worth up to $3.6 million dollars (£3 million British pounds).
Discovered in a field near Leominster, Herefordshire, the hoard included a solid gold ring and bracelet, a 9th century silver ingot, a 5th century crystal ball pendant, and 300 coins with many dating to the time of Alfred the Great. The jurors were told that all four men were aware of the law which states “buried treasure must be declared,” but their greed had led them to turn against the law and the gang had sold the items in small batches to a number of customers on the black market .
Top Image: English authorities have petitioned for the public’s help in stopping nighthawkers from “robbing the past.” Source: emerald_media /Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie