THE problem of nighthawks targeting archaeological sites is not a new crime, but it is one that heritage experts fear is often going unnoticed.
Research by English Heritage has stated that nighthawking has been committed since at least the 1970s, but only limited data have been collated as to the true scale of illegal metal detecting.
Up until four years ago, only one limited survey had been carried out in 1995 by the York-based Council for British Archaeology. Oxford Archaeology was then commissioned by English Heritage and published a report in 2008 that provided one of the clearest insights yet into the extent of nighthawking.
The study involved consultations with more than 400 heritage organisations and individuals. The report said nighthawking was “the theft by a few of the heritage of the many” and stressed the real value of finds was not monetary but in the clues the artefacts hold to the past. The survey found Yorkshire was among the worst locations for nighthawking, along with Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent and Oxfordshire. A total of 240 sites were targeted between 1995 and 2008, but many cases are going unreported.
It emerged last year that nighthawks, who generally operate under cover of darkness with metal detectors and spades, were being blamed for damage at Mount Grace Priory at Northallerton in North Yorkshire. The English Heritage site, which is England’s most important Carthusian ruin and dates back to 1398, was targeted up to five times in a matter of months. Nighthawks have also long been suspected of destroying archaeological evidence at Iron Age sites in the Yorkshire Wolds. Sites near the old Roman road Dere Street, running through the Vales of York and Mowbray, are also thought to have been targeted.
Nighthawking is legally a form of theft and can be prosecuted under the Theft Act, but a lack of prosecutions has led to a belief that it is a low-risk crime.
An English Heritage spokeswoman said: “Nighthawks, by hoarding the finds or selling them on without recording or provenance, are thieves of valuable archaeological knowledge that belongs to us all.
“Even in the case when the finds are retrieved, the context of how and where exactly the finds were found has been lost, significantly diminishing their historical value. In the cases of internationally important material the loss of the unique evidence that these objects provide on our common history and origins is especially poignant.”