We recently contrasted the big punishments given to people who steal lead from church roofs with the the leniency shown to people who plough out barrows, motorcycle on hillforts, nighthawk on scheduled sites and damage standing stones. But now in a “landmark ruling“, two men who metal detected on a protected site have been given ASBOs (the first time they’ve been used to tackle archaeological crime) as well as one year suspended custodial sentences, community service, curfews, compensation for damage and confiscation of equipment. So a heartening step towards consistency.

But there’s a long way to go. Mike Harlow (EH’s Legal Director) quite rightly said The history they are stealing belongs to all of us …. Once the artefacts are removed from the ground and sold the valuable knowledge they contain is lost for ever”. But you’d be mistaken to think that meant these two had been convicted of knowledge theft. There’s no such crime, which is why the wider reality beyond nighthawking is grim: 97% of archaeological sites are not scheduled – so if those two gents had legally removed identical objects from any of those and not reported them (as thousands freely admit they do) the self same knowledge would be lost forever and there’d be zero punishment. Hence, although Britain’s approach to heritage crime is improving (and four massive cheers for all the agencies – the police, EH, CPS and the BM – that are visibly bringing this about) our country’s approach to heritage loss remains as illogical and indefensible as ever…..

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Who can deny that the only proper approach (which is recognised and enacted abroad) is that no metal detecting whatsoever ought to be taking place without the law imposing what amounts to an antisocial behaviour order on those who do it. (Not a “voluntary” ASBO though. That would be silly, whoever heard of one of those working?!) Such a thing isn’t complicated or unfair – and every time the authorities condemn nighthawks because “The history they are stealing belongs to all of us” they are inadvertently agreeing.

PS…… and no longer said but seen! Yesterday, Simon Thurley, Chef Exec of EH, called for greater consistency by the Courts, which is our first point, with particular reference to Priddy (bravo! about time EH stopped saying they are “pleased” about that) but he also said, about nighthawks: that some of them “even trawled English Heritage’s own databases of protected sites looking for places likely to contain rich pickings….” Yes Dr Thurley, but it’s not just the courts that lack consistency for it’s not just nighthawks that do that and don’t report their finds is it? In fact nighthawks are a tiny, tiny proportion of those that do that so if you find such a thing so scandalous why not make it clear how widely it happens legally and how much you abhor it? You opine that “we’ve got perfectly good laws”. Hardly. On this particular issue the British law is a complete ass and it wouldn’t half help if you said so!


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting