Treasure raiders scooping up UK heritage

metal-detector-001Not 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

Thanet, Kent

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.

Lindum, Lincolnshire

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.

Icklingham, Suffolk

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.



Intrepid treasure-hunters – or archaeological vandals?

odysseyAt 3.30pm on 4 October 1744, the Royal Navy flotilla accompanying HMS Victory caught what was to be their last glimpse of their flagship as it drifted over the horizon in stormy seas off the Channel Islands.

Laden with four tons of Portuguese gold, the pride of the British navy – and direct predecessor to Admiral Nelson’s vessel of the same name – sank with all 1,150 of its crew. Only the shattered remains of its top-mast were found on a Guernsey beach as evidence of its terrible fate.

But yesterday the ability of that majestic and – for its time – technically advanced man-of-war to evoke dreams of vast riches was revived when an American treasure-hunting company announced that it had found the Victory and is planning to salvage its precious cargo from the depths of the English Channel.

Archaeologists accuse the Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration of combining hi-tech surveying methods with commercial ambition. They have also attacked the Ministry of Defence for “indulging in hypocrisy”, after it emerged that the ministry is in negotiations with Odyssey to share the proceeds. If all the bullion being carried by the Victory is recovered, it is estimated that it could be worth as much as £700m.

To its supporters, Odyssey is a reputable, publicly listed company that follows strict archaeological guidelines in a legitimate search for sunken vessels around the globe.

But its detractors, ranging from leading archaeological bodies to the Spanish government, claim the treasure hunters hide behind a veneer of scientific probity as they harness technology to profit from the world’s sunken heritage.

“If Odyssey is allowed to go ahead with this operation, it will cause uproar,” said Mike Williams, a specialist on maritime law at the University of Wolverhampton and secretary of the Nautical Archaeology Society. “There are very hard questions to be answered about whether these sites should be recovered, and in particular whether the British government should be sanctioning that recovery.”

Odyssey is already locked in a bitter legal dispute with the Spanish authorities over 500,000 gold and silver coins recovered from a wreck it has labelled Black Swan, and which Madrid insists is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a treasure-laden Spanish frigate sunk in 1804.

Odyssey unveiled its latest find at press conferences held simultaneously in London and New York yesterday. It revealed it had recovered a four-ton bronze cannon emblazoned with the crest of George I – a weapon that only the Victory, the last Royal Navy vessel to be armed entirely with bronze guns, was allowed to carry.

The company, which threw a veil of secrecy over its operations after the find last May, claimed the wreck is vulnerable to fishing trawlers and unscrupulous salvagers and that urgent action is therefore needed to recover the remaining 39 cannons, worth at least £30,000 each, and other “items of value”. Odyssey has declined to state whether it has found any of the Portuguese bullion.

Greg Stemm, a former advertising executive who is Odyssey’s CEO, said the value of the goods on board the Victory was secondary to the historical importance of the find: “HMS Victory was the mightiest vessel of the 18th century and the eclectic mix of guns we found on the site will prove essential in further refining our understanding of naval weaponry used during the era.”

Under international law, the wreck and its contents remain the property of the Government. The Independent understands that Odyssey is in negotiations with the Ministry of Defence to strike an agreement on similar lines to a deal signed in 2002 following the discovery of the remains of another Royal Navy gunship, the HMS Sussex, which sank off Gibraltar in 1694 with £300m-worth of gold on board. Under the terms of that deal, Odyssey gets a sliding share of the proceeds from the sale of any recovered property, up to £250m.

But archaeologists and lawyers said yesterday that a similar deal for HMS Victory would amount to the abandonment of Britain’s obligations under Unesco’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, a convention which in 2005 the Government agreed to respect, without formally signing it.

Dr Williams said: “For the Ministry of Defence to now enter into a deal to recover the remains of HMS Victory would be to indulge in hypocrisy.

“The annexe to the convention makes it clear that a site should be left undisturbed wherever possible – as this one has been for 265 years – and that if artefacts are recovered they should not be used for commercial sale. At the same time, there is a public education campaign, funded by the Government, which seeks to tell anyone diving on a wreck never to remove anything from it. If they then exploit the Victory it will mean the complete dilution of that message.”

Odyssey said it was abiding by stringent archaeological guidelines and retained the right to seek financial reward for its work.

Mr Stemm said: “Odyssey, not the taxpayer, spends its own money on the archaeological side of things. Once the entire collection is properly accounted for, it is handed over to the Government. At that point it is up to the Government to decide how to compensate us.”

The company’s stance was defended by Sir Robert Balchin, a direct descendent of Sir John Balchin, a much-revered 18th-century admiral who went down with the Victory in 1744, and who was blamed for sailing the ship on to rocks off Alderney.

The location of the wreck, which is being kept secret, shows that it did not founder because of navigational error.

A former director of St John Ambulance, Sir Robert said: “I can’t tell you what I felt when I saw that cannon. It was as if a piece of not just my family history, but national history, had come alive again. I am very clear that the artefacts that are down there should be brought up from the deep. [They] will add enormously to our knowledge of Britain’s 18th-century navy.”

Odyssey wrecks

Black Swan

A colonial-era galleon discovered in the Atlantic in 2007 with 17 tons of silver and gold coins, which were flown out of Gibraltar to Florida. The Spanish government has since filed a claim that the Black Swan is in fact its own vessel Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, and demanded the return of the treasure. Odyssey disputes the claim.

HMS Sussex

The Royal Navy ship sank off Gibraltar in 1694 with up to 10 tons of gold coins on board, making it one of the most valuable wrecks ever. Odyssey signed a deal with the Government to recover the bullion, but Spain’s authorities have prevented it from returning to the site.


50 000 exhibits “missing” from Russian museums

CNN article

A sweeping government audit has revealed that up to 50,000 pieces are missing from Russia’s museums — everything from Pre-Revolutionary medals and weapons to precious works of art — a member of the survey team said Thursday.

Former Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the survey after his government was deeply embarrassed in 2006 by hundreds of thefts from the crown jewel of Russia’s art world, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage gallery.

Over 1,600 museums have been inspected since then, and most of them have items missing, Interior Ministry Col. Ilya Ryasnoi told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

The lost items were worth a total of “several million dollars,” he said, adding most of the disappeared inventory was pre-Revolutionary and Soviet-era medals, weapons and clothes.

Precious works of art were among the missing items but separate investigations were being conducted for those, Ryasnoi said.

“Yes, there have been thefts. Museum staff have used their contacts to steal some of the artifacts without a trace,” he said. “But most has simply been lost during transportation.”

Citing specific cases, Ryasnoi said 88 World War II medals had vanished from a museum in the Altai region, and weaponry had disappeared from a museum in the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk. Almost 300 artifacts were missing from the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, he said.

So far authorities have opened 15 criminal cases of large-scale theft, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years, Ryasnoi said. More than 100 museum employees — including security guards and storage workers — have been charged with minor infractions.

However, Ryasnoi said the majority of the missing items had been mislaid or stolen during Soviet times, meaning many of those responsible may not face prosecution due to statutes of limitation.

A government spokeswoman refused immediate comment on Ryasnoi’s statements.

The commission is to present its findings early next year. In the meantime it will continue auditing more 400 museums, including the State Historical Museum on Moscow’s Red Square, he said.

A spokeswoman for the State Historical Museum would not comment on the audit while it was being conducted.

The commission, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, has a mandate to check around 80 million items in total, a difficult task given the state of Russian museum catalogues.

“Only two million of the artifacts are even photographed,” Ryasnoi noted.

Furthermore, most Russian museums do not have computerized records, he said. Some items have handwritten descriptions logged in Soviet-era log books, but most just carry a single-line description, he said, making tracking them all but impossible.

Ryasnoi’s remarks came the same day that President Dmitry Medvedev visited an art museum in Petrozavodsk, in northwestern Russia, which had recently computerized its inventory.

In July 2006, the Hermitage Museum, which includes the grandiose former Winter Palace of the czars, announced that 221 items — including jewelry, religious icons, silverware and richly enameled objects worth about $5 million — had been stolen.

Two paintings stolen from the Hermitage have been found recently in Moldova and are scheduled to be returned