Anyone who digs up valuable treasure is supposed to report the find, not hang on to it or sell it to the highest bidder. But even under lockdown, crime continues
If you had seen them, you might have thought they were ramblers or dog walkers – locals snatching some fresh air as the nation hunkered indoors during lockdown. Only their equipment would have given them away: metal detectors, a shovel and a spade, that they humped uncomfortably up a vertiginous path.
They turned off the main road and drove a quarter of a mile down a single track dark with trees, past the occasional house and fields of rolling countryside. It was probably early morning when the car pulled up at a wooden fence, on which were carved the words “GRAY HILL, COMPTON”. From here, it is a stiff, scrambling climb up Gray Hill, towards a cluster of ancient standing stones that loom out of scrubland like broken teeth. Here, if the weather is clear, you can look out towards the Severn estuary.
But these people – there was probably more than one of them – were not here to enjoy the view, but to commit a crime. Stealthily, they beep-beeped their way across the scrubland, metal detectors in hand. They dug four large holes, pocketing whatever they found, replaced the turf and disappeared. No one knows what they stole that day and no one knows how they came to be there; Gray Hill is not a place you happen upon by chance. But we know what they were doing: nighthawking, illegally metal-detecting for historic artefacts, to be kept for personal collections or sold on the black market for private gain.
Even the coronavirus lockdown did not stop nighthawkers. The Gray Hill nighthawking was discovered by Gwent police on 6 May. A week earlier, on 20 April, PCSO Sarah Wilson of Cheshire police’s rural crime team was on a routine patrol when she noticed two men metal-detecting in a stream in the village of Wildboarclough.
The nighthawker’s best friend, apart from a metal detector – which retails for as little as £40 – is the television show Time Team, which showcases areas of archeological significance. Privately, police officers express irritation that the show can be used as an idiot’s guide to the choicest places to nighthawk. That, and a hi-vis vest: Harrison tells me that nighthawkers will don them in the middle of the day to give the impression of legitimacy.
The biggest nighthawking case in British history took place in a field near Leominster in 2015. George Powell and Layton Davies found 300 Viking coins, as well as a ninth-century gold ring, dragon’s head bracelet and crystal rock pendant, on land belonging to Lord Cawley of Leominster. The coins revealed an alliance between King Alfred and King Ceolwulf II that historians did not know existed – they literally rewrote history. The men did not hand in their find to the authorities, but sold almost all of it on the black market. In 2019, Powell and Davies were jailed for a combined 18 and a half years.
Amanda Blakeman, the national police lead for heritage crime, tells me that the Leominster hoard was one of the most interesting cases of her career. “It would be a stretch to say they were organised criminals,” she says of Powell and Davies. Their undoing, Blakeman says, came from their decision to take one of the coins to the National Museum of Wales. “They wanted to get an identification of what they had got, but they did not declare that they had recovered a significant amount of coins,” she explains. Later, when Powell and Davies tried to offload the rest of the stash, a potential buyer became suspicious and contacted the police. “During the subsequent investigation into how the coins came to be sold, we were able to find them, because they had made that initial visit to a museum,” Blakeman says. (The museum had taken their details.)
We may never know the true extent of what was lost. Apart from 31 coins and some jewellery, almost all of the Leominster hoard remains missing. “Those coins dated from the Anglo-Saxon period, which is a relatively poorly understood period of history,” Harrison says. “By removing the coins illegally, and not declaring the location they were found in, the context has been destroyed. We have lost the ability to learn more about the period they were from.”
Nighthawkers tend to offload their illicit gains through specialist dealers or online marketplaces such as eBay or Facebook. “There aren’t any archaeological experts on staff at eBay UK who monitor sales to ensure that antiquities sourced from looting or nighthawking aren’t being sold,” says Dr Lauren Dundler of Macquarie University, an expert in stolen antiquities. “There are serious issues that need to be addressed in how Facebook Marketplace, and the wider platform, is regulated,” she adds. “Experts have been warning Facebook since 2014 that the platform could be utilised by illicit looters … and yet nothing has been done.” Some of these stolen antiquities are sold on private Facebook groups, but others are in plain sight.
“All listings must comply with the law,” an eBay spokesperson comments. “Our listing policies are informed and influenced by experts from relevant organisations, including the British Museum and the International Council of Museums, and authorities including the Met Police. We also closely cooperate with these experts when enforcing our policies. We will remove any listings that do not comply, and take action against the sellers.”
At Facebook, meanwhile, a spokesperson says: “Coordinating illegal activity is not allowed on Facebook. We are continuing to improve the methods we use to detect and remove posts and listings that involve the illegal sale of historical artefacts.”
Powell and Davies are not the only nighthawkers to defraud us of our cultural history. In 2012, Peter Cox and Darren West looted artefacts from the site of a former Roman town in Northamptonshire. Mark Harrison of Historic England says that because Cox and West kept returning to the scene of the crime, they were caught red-handed. “Their holes were so big that we thought some form of archeological excavation had been going on,” says Harrison, “so we sent some inspectors to assess the damage. They caught them in the act … when we downloaded their cameras, we found that they had taken pictures of themselves digging the holes.”
Wait a minute, I say. They actually photographed themselves committing a crime? Harrison’s stern mien slips for a second. “It’s like a fisherman,” he says. “They want to take a picture of the fish.”
Is there a profile of a typical nighthawker? Harrison says not. “Anyone could be involved in it,” he says darkly. Other experts agree. But reading through the list of nighthawking cases Harrison has worked on during his career – he helpfully sends it over – a few things stand out. Every case involved a white male, usually middle-aged, working alone or in a pair. One case even involved a former police officer.
What makes someone wave a metal detector in a rainy, pockmarked field for hours on end? “For those who don’t do it, metal-detecting is seen as a strange passion,” says Professor Michael Lewis of the British Museum. Catherine Lange of the National Council for Metal Detecting attempts to explain its appeal. “It’s like … opening a Christmas present,” Lange says. “That’s the only way I can describe it. I bring things home and my husband rolls his eyes and I think, ‘That’s something we lost 700 years ago and it’s still there.’” She exhales. “I find that fascinating.”
The police take nighthawking seriously. But there is a split over the best way to deal with metal detectorists who do not technically break the law, but hang on to items that they should be handing in. In England and Wales, treasure must be reported. But other archeological finds, such as belts, buckles, fragments of Anglo-Saxon pottery, you can keep. Metal detectorists are strongly encouraged to hand them in to the British Museum and the National Museum Wales’s portable antiquities scheme (PAS), so that historians can document them for posterity. But it is not illegal if you do not. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, all archeological finds have to be reported.
Not everyone thinks our leniency is a good thing. “The portable antiquities scheme tries to make it look like metal detectorists are helping archeology,” says Paul Barford, an archeologist and blogger. “That would be true if the majority of stuff were being reported. But it’s not! People are just walking off with objects.” Barford would like to see metal-detecting become taboo to prevent this plundering. “People need to start thinking, ‘Is this right?’” Barford says. “It should be socially unacceptable. That’s the way artefact-hunting should have been treated all along.”
Barford is a controversial figure – many in the archeological establishment do not agree with him, at least not publicly. Barford characterises himself as an outsider who can say what he is thinking without fear of losing funding: “People are afraid to speak out.” There may be some truth to his claim. One 2017 paper suggested there could be between 14,419 and 27,897 metal detectorists in England and Wales, and that even if the lower estimate was accepted, only 30% of them were reporting any of their finds to the PAS. (These figures have been disputed.)
Lewis heads the PAS, and accepts that the system is imperfect. “The problem we have is that we can’t instruct people that they have to record their finds, we can only advise them that they should,” he says. “I would like a bit more of a stick to go with a carrot at times.”
He would like to see metal detectorists having to sign up to codes of practice and promising to register their finds. “The way I see it is that all these objects out there are like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle,” Lewis says, “and the more we have of them, the bigger our picture of the archaeology best past. If people aren’t reporting their finds, the picture isn’t as big as it could be. It’s a bigger picture than just nighthawking.” But he believes that most metal detectorists are responsible and do hand things in.
And Lewis is adamant that stigmatising detectorists is not the way to go. “We’d lose a lot of information in this country if we banned metal-detecting,” he says. “Many of the most important archeological finds in Britain over the last 20 years have come through metal-detecting.” The Staffordshire hoard, the Watlington hoard, the Frome hoard: all were found by metal detectorists who did the right thing. Because they were on private land, they could have been destroyed by agricultural ploughing, had they not been detected.
Archaeologists rely on the goodwill of the metal-detecting community to record their finds and, at the moment, relations are good – but this wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, the Stop Taking Our Past campaign tried to have metal-detecting banned, but failed. The rift between archeologists and the metal-detecting community took decades to heal. “Hostility doesn’t help anybody,” says Lange. “All it does is drive it underground.”
She dislikes the term nighthawking. “We want it called what it is,” Lange says, “which is theft. There’s almost a romanticism about the word nighthawking.” She hates the way that responsible detectorists get lumped in with the criminals. “People think that’s what metal detectorists do, and that’s not what we recognise among our members,” she says. “We know the vast majority report their finds.”
Lange reports all her finds. Recently, she discovered a 14th-century brooch in the north Oxfordshire countryside. “It was bronze and had three lions on it with their tails wiggling around,” she says reverentially. She gave it back to the landowner, who will donate it to the local village’s archives for posterity.
A lion’s head brooch winking in the soil. A pot of gold buried by departing Viking invaders in the certainty that they would return. A bracelet warmed on the body of a woman now turned to dust, whose name has been forgotten. All these things and more, glinting relics of our common history, salvaged from the earth. Yours to find, if not to keep.