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Michael Lewis, Head of PAS and Mike Heyworth, previous Head of CBA, have condemned metal detecting rallies, first in British Archaeology and now in The Times. The tone is far stronger than the current pulling of punches on the PAS website. Well, Hurrah! But for many years we’ve published HUNDREDS of articles begging for that to happen.

Still, we’re grateful it looks like something is finally going to be done. But we do wonder whether Britain will now apologise to the world for the damage the delay has caused to the world’s heritage?

Anyhow, as a matter of interest, here’s one of our earliest complaints, from nearly 16 years ago. (Many of our articles from that era were lost due to a cyber-attack by ruffians unknown)..


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Shameful Heritage plunder near Avebury, Sunday 24 April 2005

Last Sunday anyone who cares for the past who drove north out of Avebury would have seen a distressing spectacle. No fewer than 480 metal detectorists crowded onto two fields alongside the main road at Winterbourne Bassett, busily intent on digging up our common heritage.

Metal detecting is a hobby in search of respectability. Some detectorists are very responsible people who report their finds to the government’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, allowing society, in general, to learn and benefit from the knowledge attached to these items. But the majority do no such thing – they just take.

Vulgar scene
The ‘Near-Avebury Metal Detecting Rally’ was a spectacular and avoidable own goal for the hobby. In a vulgar scene reminiscent of Supermarket Sweep, people raced to be first onto the land, anxious to claim the booty for themselves. Flint artefacts as well as metallic objects are now considered fair game.

All those who took part were members of national metal detecting organisations which proclaim their ‘strong support’ for the government’s voluntary recording scheme. Bizarrely, though, they don’t require any of their members to report finds, and the Scheme’s statistics prove that most of their members certainly don’t report finds. Whatever they find gets taken away by individuals for their own pleasure or to be sold on. Unreported and unrecorded. You may consider that the knowledge attached to these items has been stolen from our common heritage. That’s because it has.

Fields were done over
In view of this, the rally would have been ugly enough had it taken place on waste land. But here, in the world-famous archaeology of the Marlborough Downs and close to The Ridgeway, 2 Iron Age forts and countless bronze age barrows, it was sickening. Those fields, classed as disturbed plough soil – “so it’s legal, innit” are packed with our common history, from palaeolithic scatters onwards. Or at least, they were.

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As it happened, the 480 people who ‘hoovered’ these 2 fields last Sunday reckoned very little was found. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. How would anyone know? Maybe, as many of them claimed, it was because “those fields were done over” by a similar rally 10 years ago. Whatever the truth, when the full and detailed account of our past is written, those 170 acres in the heart of this vitally archaeologically rich area will forever show up as a blank in the record.      

Shameful
Shame on them! And shame on the thinking members of the hobby for tolerating such selfish and ignorant behaviour from the majority. Shame on the management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The Scheme’s management must find the moral courage to loudly proclaim what is and isn’t civilised.

[They have now! 16 years later! – Ed.]


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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting
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After years in which we’ve documented 39 instances of misleading statements (and worse) by tunnel-supporting bodies, and a month in which there have been a further 9 by English Heritage (in the Telegraph) and another 3 by the leaders of EH, Heritage England, and the National Trust (in the Guardian), the New Year seems a good time for a simple public statement of the underlying plain truth that can’t be denied or spun. Something like this, so that everyone could see it!

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This Christmas headline from Scotland warmed our cockles …

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Good. It has to be a mark of civilisation that such concern can be shown for our ancient heritage at this time when finances are so stretched. But our cockles re-froze when we remembered this earlier headline:

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In what crazy, topsy-turvey British world did a man who simply got lucky while metal detecting but refused to share his finds with the church which owned the land deserve to be given almost twice as much as the research team? Something to be considered by those involved in the forthcoming Treasure Act changes.

How about a £10,000 maximum reward in Scotland, England and Wales whatever you find and at least 5 years in prison for non-compliance? Would that work? Well, despite furious (or unthinking) claims to the contrary there are three Welshmen who have just spent their second Christmas in prison who would say yes, it definitely would!

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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting
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Our Erosion Counter continues to grow inexorably. On the last day of 2020, it showed 6,972,338 recordable artefacts dug up with only 1,516,359 objects (in 971,530 records) in the PAS database. It still runs on our original estimate of 8,000 active detectorists but as everyone now agrees, there are now vastly more of those so in July 2018 Paul Barford produced a revised counter amalgamating our figures and Sam Hardy’s. That now shows an estimate of 8,760,847 artefacts dug up (and accelerating fast).

Paul calls the figures a “mitigation failure”. But we do wonder why “mitigation” is still an aim at all? With the country in such a parlous financial state, why are we spending time and money on effectively preserving and rewarding a mere leisure activity that causes massive net damage?

Wouldn’t the money be better spent on amateur archaeology, rambling, sport, museums, education, housing, the NHS, developing lab-grown meat, ballet, reducing poverty, and almost anything else you can think of? Why, when Archaeology prides itself on maximising knowledge while minimising damage are archaeologists supporting damaging behaviour much of which is little more sophisticated than that of chimps? We’d be glad to hear a rational  answer from PAS or anyone else but are willing to wager we won’t.

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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting
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Landowners might well consult Wikipedia to learn about nighthawks but it’s clear that whoever wrote the entry deliberately distorted the truth. For instance:

1.) “Nighthawkers, being criminals, are distinct from law-abiding metal detectorists.”

Obviously. But that diverts from the important truth, useful to landowners, that nighthawks are NOT distinct from detectorists in general. The two groups occuply the same space, the same clubs, the same forums and the same Finds Liaison Officers. How else could nighthawks gain intellgence and professional identifications and Treasure rewards? Why doesn’t Wikipedia make THAT clear for the benefit of landowners?

2.) “The National Council for Metal Detecting or the Federation of Independent Detectorists are not to be confused with such criminal activity”.

But as explained above, that can’t be true! Of course nighthawks are likely to be members of those bodies since nighthawks aren’t a distinct species they are simply metal detectorists. Why doesn’t Wikipedia make THAT clear for the benefit of landowners?

3.) “Furthermore, it has been claimed, but not proven, that nighthawkers use such groups as a method of obtaining information about archaeological sites.”

But why wouldn’t they, being metal detectorists, every one of whom do exactly that? Why doesn’t Wikipedia make THAT clear for the benefit of landowners?

4.) “It has also been claimed that criminal gangs have been directed to archaeological sites by rogue archaeologists seeking a share of ill-gotten spoils.”

Claimed by whom? Evidenced when? Why would a rogue archaeologist intent on ill-gotten spoils have a need to enlist the help of a scruff with a spade? The statement serves simply to make it crystal clear who wrote the page. It is to be hoped that landowners will take heed.

PS … and this one’s a doozy!

5. Regarding Treasure, “Nighthawkers rarely declare their finds due to the method of acquisition”.

What utter, utter rot! If you’d nighthawked something valuable and had no conscience you’d simply tell PAS and the Treasure Registrar you found it elsewhere, at a rally, surely?!

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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting
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23 December 2020

Campaigners have issued a legal claim in their fight to halt the major A303 road project that would carve deep cuttings to a tunnel within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS).

Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) has applied for judicial review of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ decision to grant development consent to the eight-mile project that includes a two-mile tunnel past Stonehenge, with cuttings and tunnel entrances within the WHS.

pre-action letter sent by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of SSWHS did not receive a satisfactory response, and so a claim for judicial review was filed on December 22 before the December 24 deadline.

Permission for the A303 scheme was granted against the advice of a five-person panel of expert inspectors, the Examining Authority (ExA), who said the hugely controversial project would permanently harm the integrity of the WHS and seriously harm its authenticity. It will be argued that the scheme is contrary to the Wiltshire Core Strategy and the requirements of the World Heritage Convention.

The Stonehenge site, together with Avebury, was declared by UNESCO to be a WHS of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) in 1986 on account of the sheer size of their megaliths, the sophistication of their concentric plans and their complexes of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and monuments.

The prehistoric monuments and sites preserved within the WHS form landscapes without parallel, says UNESCO.

SSWHS says Mr Shapps’ decision to allow the road tunnel to be built alongside the site, with the tunnel entrance within, is unlawful. It makes its case on the following grounds:

  • Harm to each heritage asset within the road project should have been weighed in the balance, instead of considering the “historic environment” as a whole
  • The advice provided by Historic England did not provide the evidential basis for the Secretary of State’s conclusion of “less than substantial harm” to any of the assets impacted by the project. His disagreeing with the advice of the ExA was therefore unlawful
  • The Secretary of State allowed purported “heritage benefits” to be weighed against heritage harm, before deciding whether that overall harm was “substantial” or “less than substantial”, which was unlawful under the NPS: the primary policy test that the Secretary of State must use when making decisions for nationally significant infrastructure projects. The Secretary of State also double-counted what he considered to be the “heritage benefits”
  • The Secretary of State failed to consider whether a grant of development consent (which would, even on his own conclusions, cause harm to the OUV of the WHS) would amount to a breach of international obligations under the World Heritage Convention
  • The Secretary of State left out of account mandatory material considerations: the breach of various local policies; the impact of his finding of heritage harm which undermined the business case for the proposal and the existence of at least one alternative, namely a longer tunnel with less impact on the heritage assets

Tom Holland, president of the Stonehenge Alliance whose supporters set up SSWHS to take forward the legal action, said: 

Bearing in mind the weight of opposition to the Government’s plans for a highly intrusive road scheme through the Stonehenge landscape, it is hard to believe that the Transport Secretary has given them the green light. The Planning Inspectorate, after a painstaking, six-month investigation, advised against them. So too, appalled by the damage the Government’s plans would inflict on a World Heritage Site, did UNESCO. How the public feel can be gauged by the fact that over £46,000 has been raised to take the Government to court over the plans in only a few weeks. Let us hope that the law can come to the rescue of a landscape that ranks as our most precious and sacred.” 

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith said:

“Our client strongly believes that the Secretary of State’s approach to assessing the harm caused by this road scheme to the heritage assets in the Stonehenge area was unlawful, because he underestimated the overall impact by averaging it out and offsetting the purported benefits before appreciating the true extent of the damage. Our client will argue that, in doing so, the Secretary of State failed to follow national policy and breached international law under the World Heritage Convention.”

Campaigners are fundraising for their legal action and by December 22 had raised £46,746.

Setting out to “reveal the facts behind some of the most common myths and misconceptions about the A303 Stonehenge scheme” Highways England have been making fudge.

Fudge #1 – The tunnel is going under the Stonehenge 

“This is just not true”, says Highways England, conveniently overlooking that Stonehenge is a 5.6 km wide UNESCO World Heritage Site and the proposed A303 tunnel within it is only 3km long.

Fudge #2 – “You’ll not be seeing bulldozers at Stonehenge”, says Highways England.

Only then to state: “the only equipment (above ground) in the World Heritage Site will be at the tunnel entrances and cuttings” – so we will be seeing bulldozers at Stonehenge!

Fudge #3 – Stonehenge will be damaged during construction

“Again – not true”, says Highways England, conveniently overlooking a wide deep 1km long cutting to be excavated through a Beaker cemetery and remains of an Early Bronze Age settlement within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

Fudge #4 – We’ll lose the free view of Stonehenge 

“If you’re a driver, this is true,” says Highways England. Big of them. Passengers as well as drivers of upwards of 24,000 vehicles a day will lose the experience of encountering the free view of Stonehenge from the A303 forever.

Fudge #5 – The traffic is caused by people slowing down to look at the stones (just put a fence up instead)

“A fence wouldn’t solve this and would damage those things that make the World Heritage Site special – creating a barrier, something we are trying to remove by placing the A303 in a 2-mile tunnel”, says Highways England.

Of all the fudged claims made by Highways England this is surely a contender for a prize – so a fence “would damage those things that make the World Heritage Site special – creating a barrier” but a tunnel and attached cuttings totalling 4.5km in a 5.6km wide World Heritage Site isn’t creating a barrier and damaging what makes this place special?

Having featured the Highways England video posted on social media 16 December 2020, advice for SMEs (small and medium-sized business enterprises) which momentarily included some small print in the top left corner, the Heritage Journal have been informed that Highways England posted an almost identical video on social media 17 December 2020 that no longer included this small print:

‘Filmed before COVID restrictions’.

At the beginning of December it was reported that 75% of SMEs have endured a negative impact from the pandemic in 2020, tens of thousands of jobs are at risk and the UK is predicted to emerge from the pandemic in ‘one of the worst global positions.’

In view of which what are Highways England playing at?

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