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Without wishing to provide even more publicity to a certain Irish betting company which we refuse to name, we can’t let the occasion of yet another heritage site defacement pass without some sort of comment.

The known facts would appear to be that a group visited the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire under cover of darkness, and in a carefully planned project proceeded to ‘pin down’ a quantity of white sheeting with what were described as ‘tent pegs’ in order to make it look like the horse had acquired a rider. What are the odds of that happening, eh?

This was apparently done without permission from the National Trust, who ‘own’ the monument, and in direct contravention of planning laws, as Scheduled Monument Consent was not sought/granted. The bookies have stated that a donation has been made to the NT, but the NT have denied any such donation has been received.

There has been quite a bit of discussion on the British Archaeology (Britarch) email list about this prank/crime, almost all of the comments have condemned what has happened.

There are several aspects to this case.

  • Physical damage. The perpertrators claimed that they stayed off the actual monument (the visible chalk) but inserting a large number of tent pegs may have disturbed archaeology – we have no real way of knowing what’s there without a large scale ecvacation. Future techniques such as much more advanced geofizz will doubtless change this in years to come.
  • Environmental damage. Many Scheduled Ancient Monuments are located within SSSIs with a fragile ecosystem. We can’t help but think that a (large?) group of people clambering on the Uffington hillside in the dark, dragging large quantities of sheeting can only be causing unneccesary damage to the fragile chalkland environment.
  • Collateral damage. We’ve seen this kind of thing before; Big Brother at Uffington, Homer Simpson at Cerne Abbas etc. How many other companies will think that desecrating heritage sites in this way is a good way to get publicity?
  • Ethical damage. What kind of society are we living in if any damage above is considered acceptable because a ‘donation’ was made?

Was it really only yesterday that we suggested how non-professionals can help protect ancient sites?

English Heritage has just issued Guidance for organisers of Jubilee beacons to ensure archaeological sites aren’t damaged. A good idea, but one bit surprised us: “Staff at your local authority Historic Environment Record will also be able to advise if the location of a beacon could cause harm to an important undesignated heritage asset and suggest alternatives”

Undesignated sites are unscheduled ones. There are hundreds of thousands and they have no protection so it’s good to see English Heritage explaining the importance of checking no damage is likely to result from beacons. However, they don’t issue equivalent advice about a far larger and ongoing potential for harm on the self-same sites – the army of metal detectorists, sometimes in many hundreds at rallies, who legally target those sites in particular (the very essence of metal detecting is to find unprotected archaeological sites so as to legally maximise the finds rate). Where is the advice from English Heritage asking detectorists, including rally organisers, like beacon organisers, to check if it will cause damage and go elsewhere if so? Nowhere.

It’s not hard to see why EH can feel free to flag up a minor temporary threat but not a massive ongoing one ….

First, beacon builders will be willing to comply with any request to avoid certain sites if asked. Whereas asking metal detectorists to desist from detecting on an important but legally unprotected site that they have researched, identified and targeted for that very reason is just a joke. It’s legal innit? LEGAL. Don’t try to restrict our hobby or else we can promise widespread nighthawking from some of us.

Second, there’s no such thing as a Portable Beacon Scheme so there’s no-one asking English Heritage not to antagonise beacon builders.

As English Heritage no doubt knows and regrets, undesignated sites need protecting from all damage not just some. One day eh, English Heritage? One day it will be possible to issue a warning to landowners on your front page about avoiding major ongoing heritage damage to undesignated sites on their land, not just what might be caused once every sixty years by the highly receptive and co-operative middle classes!

Lewes Bonfire Society .... unlikely to insist "It's legal innit"

[Wikimedia Commons]

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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