Not all treasure thieves tiptoe through the shells of Iraqi museums or churn up the deserts of Peru in their hunt for valuable antiquities. Nearer to home “nighthawkers” are using metal detectors and online auctions to strip rural Britain of its archaeological riches, and their illegal activities are proving every bit as destructive.
English Heritage has been so concerned about the extent of the depredation that it commissioned a study, which revealed that what was once an illicit hobby has mushroomed into a semi-professional criminal industry.
According to police, thieves have formed loosely connected networks to trade information, often in online forums, about new and vulnerable sites.
Some farmers have been threatened after confronting groups trespassing on their land at night.
The survey, published today, found that while bronze axes, Roman coins, Saxon jewels and other precious scraps of British history are being looted from officially protected sites and open farmland, few nighthawkers are being prosecuted. Many landowners do not report the thefts as they believe police will find them difficult to prove, or they think that even if a case reaches court the penalties will be paltry.
The study found the practice to be most prevalent in eastern and central regions, such as Norfolk, Essex and Oxfordshire, which are rich in sites ranging from the prehistoric to medieval eras.
More than 200 raids were reported between 1995 and 2008, more than a third of them affecting scheduled ancient monuments. Archaeologists believe this figure represents the tip of the iceberg. To their despair, in the handful of cases that have gone to court the thieves usually received just a caution, or a fine as low as £38. Not surprisingly, only 14% of landowners bother to report this type of crime, knowing that unless the nighthawkers are caught red-handed the most the criminals are likely to be accused of is trespass, according to the survey.
Once objects are removed it is almost impossible to establish their provenance, and many end up being sold on eBay.
Yet if the treasure seekers do act with the landowner’s permission, and report finds under the portable antiquities scheme, in most cases the objects will be recorded, and then returned to the finders.
Mike Pitts, editor of the journal British Archaeology, said: “I could drive to a well-known ancient site, dig holes all over it and sell the stolen proceeds with little risk of prosecution. I get more attention from a traffic warden when I park outside my front door.”
At Buckinghamshire county museum, Brett Thorn, curator of archaeology, tells the story of a set of rare British bronze-age axes, bought in the Netherlands, on eBay, by a metallurgist who paid £205. They were eventually donated to the museum by the buyer, but Thorn says information about the site where they were found would have been the real treasure.
Pete Wilson, an archaeologist with English Heritage, said: “This is seen as a victimless crime. But we are all the victims, our history is being stolen. We hope that through education we can make people regard nighthawking as abhorrent as taking birds’ eggs – once commonplace – is generally regarded now.”
Illicit digs: Sites hit by thieves
Axe and spear heads and gold jewellery dating back to the bronze age were snatched in a raid on a site in 2007. The thief was traced as he declared part of the hoard to the authorities so as to keep some items legitimately. Experts were suspicious and police raided his home, discovering several priceless artefacts. The thief, who had no previous convictions, accepted a caution for criminal damage.
Uninvited people dug 20 holes at the Roman villa site one night in 2007. To deter further exploring, the dig organisers had to scan the robbers’ trenches and extract any remaining metal items. They despaired over the damage to the archaeological record.
Catterick, North Yorkshire
The roadside settlement at Bainesse Farm and the site of the Roman town of Cataractonium were hit by thefts but helped by sanctioned detecting. In 1996, local metal detector enthusiasts approached English Heritage to fund organised searches following the thefts. Work continued over three years, creating a body of evidence that helped to protect the sites.
The Roman settlement has been a frequent target of nighthawkers over 30 years. Archaeologists have used security patrols, thermal imaging cameras and movement detectors to deter thieves. Dozens have been prosecuted for raiding the site over the years, with fines of up to £500 each.