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An open letter from Heritage Action to Maeve Kennedy of the Guardian


Dear Ms Kennedy,

We listened to what you had to say here –

and are in agreement. As a conservation group we have paid attention to the issue of metal detecting for some years. May we offer you our own perspective?


In essence, we feel Britain has adopted a simplistic view which results in overall damage to the archaeological resource by detectorists on a scale far greater than that caused by nighthawks. This failure to acknowledge the main problem dates from the inception of the PAS, since which time much of the press, all detectorists, many archaeologists and PAS themselves have promoted the view that nighthawks are bad but by default non-nighthawks are mostly both responsible and harmless.


While it is perfectly true that non-nighthawking is legal, it is certainly not true that most non-nighthawking is not damaging. This is clear from PAS’s own statistics and has been confirmed by Dr Bland: only a minority of non-nighthawking, legal, detectorists report what they find to PAS, ergo they are responsible for destroying historical data and cannot be described as either “responsible” or harmless by any available yardstick. The percentages involved are a matter of dispute and in our view PAS, which has a vested interest in ensuring its continued funding, has been guilty of some questionable statistical gyrations to present as high a figure of reporting detectorists as possible but by every measure non-reporting, “irresponsible”, damage-creating (but legal!) detectorists are in a majority. On this basis we contend that it is they who cause most damage, not nighthawks. Our views are laid out here –

You will see from our Erosion Counter how dire we think the problem is. All detectorists (and most US importers) say our figures are wildly exaggerated. Roger Bland dismisses them as speculative. They are certainly the latter, since no-one can know what an individual person finds in a field or what they do with it. But no-one has offered an alternative and our contention is that even if our figures were five fold too high they would still be unacceptable. Not that we think they are too high – there are many pointers – PAS’s figures of how many people report to them (and how many therefore don’t) being one – and at every stage we took a conservative view of the likely damage, well aware the figures would be attacked. One example – Bill Wyman thinks there are 250,000 detectorists. We assumed 10,000.

There is a further reason why we feel Britain has sleepwalked into a situation where “legal” is erroneously equated with harmless. Most detecting takes place on ploughsoil and is therefore claimed to be on contextless, archaeologically sterile land. The reverse is true. Detectorists, to a man and woman, are keen to seek out the most “productive” sites where finds-rates are maximised and take great pains to research for these in the literature or aerial photographs. These are naturally archaeological sites (why else would the find-rate be high?) – not the 30,000 plus scheduled sites but the vastly greater number of non-scheduled sites that have been identified by English Heritage – not protected but with contexts and horizontal scatters of artefacts that are perfectly capable of being damaged or destroyed by removal without reporting.

As you will know, few of the above problems arise in Eire where the hobby is banned. As you will also know, the same applies in Northern Ireland where it is strictly licensed. In neither place is there either large-scale legal damage OR nighthawking (the latter being often claimed to be the scary inevitable consequence of a legislative solution in Britain). We tend to the view that one or the other solution over there is the only proper answer in Britain and that either could be made to work over here. What isn’t working is the status quo in which both detectorists and officialdom present most detecting activity as harmless and the press largely repeats the message to the public (how could they not when Britain has created a situation in which both sides have a strong vested interest in promoting it?)There is hardly a press article or official document relating to metal detecting that doesn’t lean over to say most detectorists are responsible, It has become a mantra, deliberately inserted into every account whether pertinent or not. We have little doubt that as a journalist it will have been offered to you constantly. Yet the truth is the opposite and plainly on display to anyone who looks at PAS’s figures. Britain has got itself into a financial and conservation mess and both sides are pretending otherwise.

Other than ourselves and a few individuals no-one is saying the emperor is unclad. Indeed, anyone who says so is accused (by both sides) of disrupting the bridge-building process between detectorists and the rest of us whereby, in time all will become responsible. We would accept the accusation but for the fact the process has lasted ten years, has not achieved what it was meant to and has instead actually provided official blessing to ten years of damage by the majority. Only if “most detectorists are responsible” could it be wrong in fact or action to point out the emperor has no clothes. They simply aren’t and he hasn’t.

Efforts to persuade EBay to prevent nighthawked items being sold strike us as less than frank and a powerful silent manifestation of the mantra. Most unprovenanced British items on Ebay come from “legal” detectorists who don’t report what they find yet tend to be immune from criticism in most quarters. Yet even acknowledging this would not reveal even half of the story. Most legal detectorists don’t sell on EBay at all but build up legal private collections while legally telling no-one and legally creating even more legal damage to the archaeological record. Behind every item on EBay are many others, just as unreported. Should not The Nighthawking Report have been re-titled as The Metal Detecting Report and been given a remit to investigate the far greater scale of damage to our archaeological resource that is happening entirely legally during the day? Should not this be what happens next?

Period Images (paintings, prints, photographs and sketches) can not only be attractive in their own right but often show how a site looked in years gone by. The hand-coloured engraving below is the first in a series of period images the Journal will feature. If you have a period image which you would like to see published on The Heritage Journal please send it to our editorial team at Heritage Action.
Trevethy Stone by Charles Knight: circa 1845


February 2009

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