Nighthawkers, by hoarding the finds or selling them on without recording or provenance, are thieves of valuable archaeological knowledge that belongs to us all. Sir Barry Cunliffe, Chairman of English Heritage.

Although published recently (in the Telegraph) this is actually old news, having been said in 2009 and expressing no more than what everyone knows – that nighthawks don’t report their finds so steal knowledge that belongs to all. So why is it our Quote of the Week? Well, lately there’s been lots in the press about efforts to combat heritage crime especially nighthawking but in our view it is all targeting a mere sprat while ignoring a veritable whale – for look what Sir Barry could and should have said in order to highlight the REAL scale of knowledge theft – and the REAL culprits: 

Forget the nighthawks, they are an irrelevant minority. The amount of knowledge stolen by the many thousands of LEGAL but non-reporting detectorists (who are the clear majority of metal detectorists as shown by PAS’s figures) is vastly greater than the losses due to a few hundred nighthawks.

What clearer illustration can there be that the British archaeological Establishment is having to adopt an irrational public stance on portable antiquities? The Head of PAS has just told us that detectors disguised as walking sticks are not something he needs to warn landowners about and the Chairman of English Heritage is telling those same landowners that a few hundred nighthawks are knowledge-thieves but omits to tell them that so will be most of the “legal” detectorists that are likely to knock on their doors!

If there’s is a defence against a charge of misleading the public let us hear it. In the meantime, each time you hear about the Nighthawking Report and efforts to combat heritage crime, remember the damage they are addressing is absolutely miniscule compared with the legal damage that is going on day after day that isn’t being mentioned at all by officialdom.

Here’s the British policy on Portable Antiquities in a nutshell:
(If it is wrong, show us how!)

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

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UPDATE 24 May 2011 by Nigel Swift.

In History for the Taking, a report prepared for the British Academy and just released (http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/History-for-the-taking.cfm), Sir Barry makes it very clear that nothing has changed since his 2009 quote when he writes:

The Portable Antiquities Scheme is the envy of many countries … which begs the question: can one of them be named? And the musing: is it not a rum circumstance that not a single country has come even close to following the British example of liberalising metal detecting or setting up their own Portable Antiquities Scheme? Should not such confident statements be backed up with evidence, lest the public hears only one side? 

He goes on: Without it tranches of unique information will inevitably be lost. Yet there is not a mention of the fact that vastly greater tranches of unique information are being lost at the hands of thousands of legal but non reporting detectorists. Instead he moves on to discuss “new initiatives sponsored by English Heritage to combat heritage crime” – in other words, measures to combat the tiny minority, the nighthawks, who only cause a miniscule proportion of the losses. 

Professor Sir Barry et al are of course VIPs and I am merely a member of the public. Yet I can proclaim with great confidence that I am right and they are wrong because the “losses of tranches of unique information” are not a matter of opinion or scholarship or interpretation or nuance or official edict they are a matter of numbers and as such they cannot be denied, nor will they be by History – although by then sadly they WILL have become purely academic. Indeed, they are not actually denied by the Establishment, they are ignored as if they don’t exist, as has happened in this extremely prestigious report. To my mind, to ignore horrendous legalised cultural losses (in public at least) yet to publicly hand-wring and proudly proclaim war upon the tiny criminal cultural losses is the same as misleading the public. 

The option remains, of course, to reject such a serious charge and back it up by showing the numbers are entirely different. But that option has remained open and not been taken up for years. Thus the real losses, the real scale of losses and the real culprits are certainly not being put in front of either the British Academy or the British victims of the losses.

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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