by Nigel Swift

In the daytime this could be a Chartered Surveyor, a City Banker, a plumber or a detectorist. Why should only the latter be denied?

In the daytime this could be a Chartered Surveyor, a City Banker, a plumber, a priest, an archaeologist or a detectorist. Why should only the latter be denied?

BBC Inside Out East is screening another nighthawking exposé on Monday (Feb 18th). It’s a certainty they’ll trumpet that nighthawks aren’t detectorists. Yet logic strongly suggests they are a very obvious subset of the detecting community, not a strange, exotic species. There’s no shame in the fact as there are bad apples in all groups but what is shameful is that detectorists try to conceal it by constantly claiming that if you’re a thief you can’t also be a detectorist. The latest instance is a Comment on the Journal saying the recent intrusions on the Staffordshire Hoard field are “nothing to do with detectorists“! How the blazes could he know?! There’s zero evidence there’s anyone other than detectorists in the business. Equally wrong is archaeologists, magistrates, journalists and police perpetuating the fiction as it means the problem is not being addressed at it’s real source.

For me it’s clear most nighthawks are fully integrated into the detecting community for it would surely be almost impossible for them to operate without being members of detecting clubs and forums, attending rallies, talking to FLOs and being mainstream, jolly artefact hunters basking in official adulation most of the time. How else could they obtain knowledge, get identifications, apply for Treasure rewards and appear ordinary? I can’t prove it but I don’t need to. Off guard on their forums detectorists constantly admit it and have been doing so for 10 years to my certain knowledge. “We all know who most of them are”…. “up to a third of my club members turn their hand to it” and so on, regularly. (Take a look if you don’t believe me.) Yet for public consumption there’s a different mantra – “nighthawks are not detectorists, they’re thieves”. Worse, The Establishment endlessly repeats the refrain – “nighthawks aren’t detectorists, they are people who use detectors to steal”. Nonsense. They are detectorists who who use detectors to steal.

So I suggest this: let detectorists admit the criminals are in their ranks not in some sort of secret nighthawking club and let them start helping the police get more convictions. (Someone has put the situation in a nutshell in our Comments section: it’s “like a gardener not cooperating with a police investigation because the thief had used secateurs”!). The reputation of honest detectorists could only rise. And let The Establishment drop the pretence that they think the place to look for thieves with detectors isn’t in the middle of the detecting community. The conviction rate could only rise. I could count on one hand the number of detectorists thoughtful enough to know that would be in the interest of detectorists. On the other hand most of The Establishment know very well I’m right but won’t say so. Thus we have mass, sullen stupidity on one side and mass knowing silence on the other and the term “nighthawking” will continue to be used, thereby reducing progress towards combating that which it describes. Yet another unavoidable consequence of Britain plotting the wrong course in the first place.

If ever either detectorists or the authorities bring themselves to publicly acknowledge what I’ve been photographing on the Staffordshire Hoard field for the past two weeks (will they?) you should take note of their terminology. It’s a cert they’ll say it was nighthawks not criminal metal detectorists. Mass, sullen stupidity on one side and mass knowing silence on the other, see. Sad isn’t it?

                    ……………………………….. UPDATE ……………………………………….


The Inside Out programme has just aired. The item lasted about 10 minutes. Thieves were mentioned three times, illegal detectorists once and the term “nighthawks” was used just once, and qualified by the words “so called”. A big change compared with the programmes the same company made a decade ago and subsequently.

Of course, there was the obligatory reference to most detectorists being legal (true) but also the usual sleight of hand (or maybe failure of understanding) whereby it wasn’t mentioned that most of them don’t report most of their finds and thus destroy far, far more heritage knowledge than the criminals the programme was complaining about. So 2 out of 10 for properly informing the viewers and could do a lot better, and still far behind the rest of the world.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting