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By Nigel Swift

My Irish colleague Gordon Kingston posed the inflammatory question “Where does metal-detecting stop and night-hawking begin? How short is the step?” Pretty impolite. Not the sort of question normally posed over here. Maybe it’s because he is Irish and out of range of the incessant drone of the PAS-fed British media, deifying the dubious. Still, in fairness, we ought to address the question as if it isn’t blasphemous and naive. So let’s define the two terms –

 Nighthawks: people that metal detect without the landowner’s permission or on protected sites thereby trespassing, stealing or breaching the Ancient Monuments Act.
 Metal detectorists: people who don’t do that.

So that’s it Gordon, Nighthawks are criminals, metal detectorists aren’t. And actually, it turns out your question wasn’t ludicrous, it was pertinent. The difference is simple alright, but wafer thin – since it actually boils down to a purely spatial distinction. A metal detectorist that steps through a hedge becomes a nighthawk and is the devil’s companion according to all other detectorists and PAS – and a nighthawk that hops back over a fence becomes a metal detectorist, and a saint according to all other detectorists and PAS – with all the praise, honour and professional lickspittling that is instantly due to anyone that buys a metal detector in Britain. Like photons, these human versions of the wave-particle duality can flit from one state of reality to the other, depending upon where they are at any particular moment – which no-one can ever know for certain, on account of how dark it gets at night in this country.

All we do know for certain is that the nighthawk manifestation comprises a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny minority. We know this for certain because the ten thousand detectorist manifestations all tell us so (on the basis, presumably, that each of them personally knows and can absolutely vouch for every single movement, throughout the night, of each of the other 9,999) and on that rock solid and logical basis heritage professionals have loudly asserted in countless press releases for at least thirteen years and at prestigious international conferences that nighthawks are a vanishingly small part of the whole and Britain has built a complete resource protection strategy accordingly. Impressive, eh? A castle built on jelly supplied by the beseigers!

The name of one fundamental particle is a “charm” is it not? That’s them, pretty much. Charmed Teflon heroes, unique to Britain, “outreached to” not criticised and permanently bathed in PAS’s purple praise and blinkered bravos!

But of course Gordon, that’s merely the political message that the PAS scientists are obliged to publish by their paymasters, not the reality indicated by the raw data. According to that, at least 60% of these charmers don’t report what they find to PAS and both it and its context are lost to science and the community (but PAS skirts round saying so for fear umbrage will the taken and the figure will rise to 90% – as they’ve been threatened with three times. “Don’t write to landowners about the importance of recording else we’ll go on strike”) So we probably ought to re-cast and re-pose your question as: “Where does non-reporting metal-detecting stop and night-hawking begin? How short is the step?

As before, let’s define the two terms, to see –

 Nighthawks: 

Knowledge thieves who thereby destroy heritage.

 Non-recording metal detectorists: 

Knowledge thieves who thereby destroy heritage.

So in terms of their effect on the resource and the rest of us, there is NO step between the 60% of non-reporting metal-detectorists and nighthawks. They are totally identical.

Divisive and inflammatory stuff eh? Enough to earn a lot of emailed threats and abuse. People sometimes ask, how can we stand being bitterly hated by ten thousand metal detectorists and subjected to the apparent disapproval of much of the archaeological establishment? It’s easy. Ten thousand British metal detectorists and the British archaeological establishment are numerically insignificant. Beyond these shores what Heritage Action thinks is what the thinking world thinks and they think what Britain is doing is ridiculous. Your piece could have been written by hundreds of thousands of heritage professionals from any country on earth. That’s enough to sustain us. Thanks for reminding us what the real world is like and that criticising those who erode our finite national patrimony or those that aid and abet them does not put us out of step with informed opinion, quite the reverse! It is PAS that are embarrassing themselves in full view of the world’s archaeologists, not us.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting



August 2010

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