By Nigel Swift

I see there have been obvious efforts by detectorists and others (since the recent PAS conference) to re-brand nighthawks as “site burglars”.  A good idea in principle – nighthawks aren’t adventurers, they’re common criminals and the public ought to know. But of course, site burglar is a misnomer. Burglars break into buildings, whereas nighthawks walk into fields – and they steal artefacts, not sites.  So no, if we are going to properly rebrand nighthawks we shouldn’t call them site burglars but artefact thieves. (We’ll be happy to unite with detectorists, archaeologists and the police in calling them that from now on.)

Adopting proper descriptive terms is always a good idea if the public are to be properly informed (spades are best described as spades, after all) but it’s mighty dangerous territory for detectorists (perhaps that’s why they have restricted their proposed linguistic reforms to nighthawks alone.) After all, if we all now start calling nighthawks artefact thieves then it’s only right and proper that we call non-reporting detectorists knowledge thieves. Yes?

Who could possibly deny it? People who don’t report their finds to PAS are knowledge thieves. People who don’t report find spots with maximum precision are knowledge thieves. People who still detect on land where the farmer says they mustn’t report finds are knowledge thieves. People who say I’ll just keep my own records are knowledge thieves. The unreported majority of the ten million seven hundred and forty three thousand artefacts currently showing on our Artefact Erosion Counter have been dug up by knowledge thieves.

So both terms are perfectly accurate – nighthawks are artefact thieves and non-reporting detectorists are knowledge thieves. Let us all, conservation campaigners, detectorists and archaeologists, combine to deliver those twin truths to the public. Let archaeologists at last make it clear to the public that they shouldn’t allow either type of heritage thief into their fields (like we’ve been saying for years) and let metal detectorists treat both of these two sets of thieves with equal contempt and disallow them from their forums, national associations and local clubs. Let there be an end to the disreputable British pretence that stealing artefacts is dreadful but that stealing knowledge isn’t just as heritage-damaging, selfish and wrong. It is.

The two types of heritage thieves. Only in Britain are the public not told they are equally contemptible.

PS: if things go as they usually do, I won’t be challenged on this. Instead I’ll be blaggarded. No matter. What matters to me is that no-one, be they detectorist, apologist, archaeologist, academic or politician, will ever be able to successfully refute my assertion that non-reporting detectorists are knowledge thieves. Indeed, no-one in the latter three groups will even try, which is food for thought for all concerned – including the public, whose knowledge is being stolen with the full understanding of archaeologists!


More Wiltshire local history being flogged off “for charity”

Staffordshire Hoard: Parting the Piggy Bank

Lucrative heroism?

Heritage Action vindicated at Portable Antiquities conference

Largest detecting forum confesses to undermining PAS

PAS to support metal detecting sales push

Metal detecting and helping Donald Trump: two additions to the British education syllabus?

Wiltshire metal detecting rally flouts archaeological guidelines

Metal detecting at the end of the noughties: bad just got worse

Metal detecting: a letter to English Heritage

Metal detecting: £3.2 million reward for reporting the Staffordshire hoard should have been £32 million claims detectorist!

Nighthawking: much ado about the wrong thing.