Clad in camouflage jackets and clutching the tools of their trade, the three men who descended after dark on a Gloucestershire village appeared to be conventional burglars. But rather than thieving from a building, their target was an open field.
For four hours on a night in October, the trio brandished powerful metal detectors and trowels as they swept land on a farm south of Stroud before an accomplice arrived at 2am to take them and their plunder away. Were it not for clandestine night vision cameras recording their labours, the only evidence of this nocturnal larceny would have been the holes left by their probing in the ploughed ground.
The men were “nighthawks” – metal detectorists who raid ancient sites to dig up artefacts, which rather than being offered for public scrutiny then disappear forever into auctions or private collections.
Nighthawking has been a significant problem for at least a decade, ruining important archaeological sites by extracting treasures and disturbing ground without going through the steps performed by thousands of law-abiding detectorists who record locations and submit finds for professional classification.
Graham Nichols owns the Cotswolds farm above a ruined Roman settlement that was raided in October. He said: “I’m not so worried about the value of what they’re stealing. I’m more concerned that they are raping this ground. This is Roman history – once they have dug it up it’s gone.”
Another Roman site at Bradwell in Essex was attacked earlier this month, leaving the landscape pockmarked with tell-tale holes.
But now the fight against nighthawks – and the wider of issue of heritage crime ranging from the theft of stone paving slabs to burning graffiti into old timber buildings – is being intensified with a tightening of the law and a nationwide operation to crackdown on illegal metal detecting.
Operation Chronos, led by Essex Police alongside heritage watchdog Historic England and other bodies, aims to increase the reporting of illegal metal detecting and catch nighthawks, who often operate in teams and can pose a risk of violence, as they pilfer the history buried beneath the soil from Kent to Hadrian’s Wall. Landowners are encouraged to report suspicious detectorists, taking number plates and descriptions.
PC Andy Long, the Essex officer heading the operation, told The Independent: “People in this country love their heritage. If someone came along and started removing the stones from Stonehenge, there would be outrage. When a Saxon necklace is taken out of the ground illegally it is the same thing. You are changing the story of the landscape.”
The initiative is symptomatic of what those in charge of conserving heritage assets say is an improved focus on bringing criminals to justice at a time when the nation’s historic fabric is under sustained assault. According to one survey, 200 crimes are committed against listed buildings in England each day.
As of 1 February, anyone convicted of an offence that involves theft or damage to a historic site – from stripping lead from a church roof to nighthawking a Celtic bangle – will be formally recognised as a “heritage crime”. The new guideline announced by the Sentencing Council and bolstered by 16 specialist prosecutors means anyone convicted of such will be liable to an increased sentence.
Mark Harrison, a former senior officer with Kent Police who now acts as Historic England’s crime adviser, said: “There has been this slightly romanticised notion of illegal metal detecting as a victimless crime. It isn’t. What are you going to think as a farmer if you find people on your land with camouflage and equipment? These groups are also making significant financial benefits from what they do.
“Steps like the new sentencing guidelines should send a powerful deterrent message. At the end of the day what these people are doing affects us all because they are damaging or stealing objects that we will never see or understand because they have been taken out of these sites with no care or record as to their history or context.”
The Independent understands that some 140 cases of nighthawking have been reported over the last five years as illegal detectorists invest up to £5,000 a time in night vision goggles and sophisticated detecting equipment, much of which comes with a GPS monitor to enable thieves to pinpoint locations.
Finds are sold on auction sites or by word of mouth between nighthawkers. Some more valuable finds are even illegally exported abroad.
The renewed emphasis on heritage crime is already having some results. In October last year, Roy Wood, a delivery driver from Essex, was convicted of nighthawking a Roman gold coin from a site in Norfolk worth £200 after his posts on Facebook boasting of his finds led police to his door. Earlier this month, two men appeared in court in Peterborough charged with going equipped to steal in connection with a nighthawking investigation.
But some experts warn that even with the increased sentencing powers and initiatives such as Operation Chronos, the scale of nighthawking is greater than previously understood, not least because the full list of known ancient sites in England – with co-ordinates to the nearest few metres – is publicly available to those who know where to look.
Mark Horton, professor of archaeology at Bristol University, exposed the Cotswolds nighthawkers as part of a joint investigation with the BBC using specialist cameras designed to capture wildlife.
He said: “My feeling is that the scale of the problem is vast. Sites like the one we investigated have clearly been systematically looted for the last 10 to 15 years and that is just one of hundreds of sites.
“It is actually quite difficult to understand because at least with Roman sites, the vast majority of the coins they are finding have virtually no value. These people seem to be driven by this idea that they are going to stumble on a horde and make a fortune. But it is illusory – you have much the same chance as winning the lottery.”
England is unusual even within the British Isles in allowing detectorists to roam free as long as they avoid scheduled ancient monuments, gain the permission of landowners (often in return for a 50 per cent share in the value of any find) and declare any treasure – defined as gold and silver or prehistoric artefacts – to the nearest coroner or local authority finds liaison officer.
Enthusiasts in Scotland and Northern Ireland must obtain a licence and across much of Europe metal detecting is banned altogether.
Experts accept that with 25,000 registered detectorists and around 37,000 sites listed as ancient monuments, a prohibition in England is neither practicable nor desirable.
Law-abiding detectorists have been not only responsible for leading archaeologists to dozens of new sites by declaring artefacts but they also act as an early warning system for the authorities by spotting nighthawkers and their wares.
Anni Byard, a finds liaison officer for Oxfordshire County Council, said: “There is a lot less tolerance of nighthawkers – these thieves who dig lots of holes, take the stuff and sell it. Detectorists and landowners are starting to report illegal detectorists a lot more.”
When this is combined with increased police use of technology such as night vision cameras and more muscular law enforcement, experts hope the nighthawks can be banished to the shadows.
Prof Horton said: “It looks like we might have the tools we need to defeat the nighthawks and preserve our heritage. We just have to ensure that they are used.”
At risk: Stolen heritage
Theft of old paving flags, particularly in sought-after materials such as Yorkstone, is a growing problem. Incidents of stone theft have risen 18 per cent in Yorkshire this year as thieves, often disguised as utility workers, target schools, listed homes, farms and churches. Much of the material is sold for home refurbishments.
Considered by Historic England to be the single most damaging area of heritage crime; 6,700 churches and 42 historic properties have been targeted by metal thieves in the last five years at a cost of nearly £12.5m. The stripping of lead and copper from roofs leaves buildings open to penetrating damp and widespread damage.
The waters around the British Isles have one of the highest densities of shipwrecks in the world. Wrecks are increasingly being targeted by rogue divers who are searching for artefacts, and high-quality lead ballast is also retrieved for sale.
This term describes practice of defacing historic timber buildings by using a lighter or branding iron to burn or scorch graffiti tags into the wood. Medieval houses in The Rows shopping area in Chester are among those places that have been targeted.
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