HERITAGE experts have warned illegal metal detectorists will face prosecution for raiding internationally-important archaeology sites and placing the nation’s past in jeopardy of being lost forever.
The escalating problem of nighthawking has led to a concerted drive being launched by English Heritage to tackle it.
Archaeologists believe the nation’s passion for the past is fuelling the desire for rogue metal detectorists to unearth artefacts to then sell on.
Finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard, which was unearthed in 2009 by a legitimate metal detectorist and is the largest collection of Anglo Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, have also acted as a huge motivation for nighthawks.
Senior officials at the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), which is based in York, claimed the prevalence of nighthawking is placing centuries-old heritage at grave risk.
The CBA’s head of conservation, Gill Chitty, said: “We would urge anyone who is considering going out with a metal detector to ensure they have permission from the landowner and to report any archaeological finds.
“The vast majority of metal detectorists are very responsible, and they play a vital role in uncovering the nation’s past.
“But there is a small element out there who are not interested in finding archaeological remains, but are intent on their own financial gain.
“It is heartbreaking to think that these people are destroying the heritage that has laid undiscovered for centuries.”
A former chief inspector with Kent Police, Mark Harrison, is spearheading the national drive to curb nighthawks plundering historical sites, some of which date back 4,000 years.
Mr Harrison was appointed at the start of this month by English Heritage as its national policing and crime advisor to co-ordinate the purge of heritage crime.
He said: “We have identified illegal excavations as a strategic priority under the national policing effort.
“English Heritage itself is an enforcement agency and we will work closely with our partner agencies to identify the correct intervention.
“In the most serious cases we will work with the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute offenders and to bring them to justice.
“There are concerns that sites are being disturbed and the history lost forever.
“But it is not only scheduled sites that are being affected, there are many other locations around the country where the heritage has yet to be uncovered but it is still being targeted illegally.
“Yorkshire itself is particularly rich in archaeology and with that comes the potential for artefacts being excavated illegally, but it is an issue that is happening nationally.
“We are working closely with police forces and other agencies to send out a clear and strong message that this will not be tolerated.”
Mr Harrison stressed that there was no evidence to suggest organised gangs of criminals were targeting the region’s archaeological sites, but he admitted a clear picture had yet to emerge with intelligence still being gathered.
The global black-market trade in historical artefacts is nonetheless hugely lucrative, and internet auction sites are being monitored closely to prevent the sale of items obtained through nighthawking.
Mr Harrison said that while awareness was increasing about the problem of heritage crime, a vast amount of work still needed to be done. Isolated rural locations are often targeted and he urged communities in the countryside to remain vigilant for any suspicious activity.