The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard and the subsequent Birmingham Archaeology project to examine the findspot, undertaken in co-operation with the finder and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) with funding from English Heritage and Staffordshire County Council, demonstrates in spades the contribution that responsible metal-detecting can make to our understanding of the past. Conversely, the threat to our past posed by ‘nighthawking’ (illegal metal detecting, as opposed to the legitimate activities of responsible metal-detectorists) threatens the potential for similar results on other sites.
The discovery of the hoard will cause a reassessment of the Anglo-Saxon period; however, its academic importance was overshadowed in much of the mainstream media by an emphasis on the financial value of the find and, by implication, of ‘treasure hunting’ as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. The parties who stand to gain financially from the Staffordshire Hoard (the detectorist and landowner) acted with an impressive degree of professionalism and self-restraint during the frenzy that followed the announcement of the find; it is the media themselves who are to blame for the subsequent shift of focus.
This emphasis on money poses a massive threat to the buried past as it may well encourage the looting of sites, whether designated or not, by poorly-informed new detector owners and also by the just plain greedy or criminal who know all too well that what they are doing is illegal. It also has the potential to blacken the reputation of the many responsible metal-detectorists who are primarily driven by an interest in our collective past and who have contributed so much through recording their finds with the PAS. While we may marvel at the Staffordshire finds, and I will admit to looking forward to seeing them at the BM, we perhaps ought to also think about the losses that may result from it.
Another worrying factor is the current economic climate. During and after the Miner’s Strike in the 1980’s, the Nighthawking Survey Report suggests that there was a distinct spike in nighthawking, particularly involving groups operating out of the north-east. The current recession, coupled with dreams of seven-figure valuations, may prove irresistible in the same way, and cause a similar upswing in looting of archaeological sites across Britain. In the United States, ‘how-to’ metal-detecting DVD’s are gaining popularity and are actively being marketed as an avenue towards an ‘extra source of income during these economic times,’ and likened to gold prospecting during the Great Depression, or playing the slot machines in Las Vegas.
It’s not about the money
Even without the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard to fuel the situation, nighthawking is a major issue that can only diminish our potential to understand the past. Following the publication of the Oxford Archaeology report into the problem in February 2008 (see www.helm.org.uk/nighthawking), English Heritage and others have been working on how best to respond to and implement the various recommendations in dealing with this issue. A seminar in November 2009 will discuss possible ways forward and highlight some proposed measures. While there is no ‘magic bullet’ that can stop nighthawking, it ought to be possible to make a real difference. Essential to any strategy will be closer co-operation with the Police, and hopefully the results of such co-operation will raise the profile of the problem with the Crown Prosecution Service and Magistrates. It is crucial to move thinking beyond the simple monetary value of finds to the greater loss of archaeological knowledge that looting of sites represents.
Hostility and suspicion between sections of the archaeological community and metal detectorists persists – too often I have heard statements to the effect that ‘English Heritage wants to ban all metal detecting’ and strong views are also expressed by some professional archaeologists. I must state here unequivocally that English Heritage are not seeking to ban metal-detecting. English Heritage recognises that metal detectorists who operate within the law and record their finds with the PAS contribute significantly to our quest to better understand the past. If archaeologists and responsible metal detectorists can reduce the mutual suspicion that bedevils these relationships, perhaps together we can all work to make life more difficult for the nighthawks.
Dr Pete Wilson is Head of Research Policy
(Roman Archaeology) for English Heritage and also acts
as Portable Antiquities ‘Lead’ for English Heritage.