SPECIALIST investigators have launched a nationwide crackdown on rogue metal detectorists amid fears that centuries-old artefacts are being sold on the internet in a global blackmarket trade.
Archaeological experts have revealed there is evidence to suggest historical finds are being bought across the world in a lucrative illicit trade after illegal treasure hunters known as “nighthawks” have targeted internationally-renowned locations.
Grave concerns have been voiced that the region’s own sites are being put at dire risk by nighthawking as efforts are intensified to combat the problem.
English Heritage is forging closer links with police forces across the country and operations have led to a series of arrests in connection with nighthawking on sites dating back to the pre-historic era.
A national team of 14 specialist prosecutors has also been introduced by the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with cases of heritage crime.
One of the operations has seen a man from Rotherham charged with offences of theft linked to illicit metal detecting in Lincolnshire. He is due to appear before magistrates in Skegness next month. The Yorkshire Post understands coins and brooches from the Anglo-Saxon era were seized during a raid on his home in an operation involving police officers from both South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and English Heritage.
Leading archaeologists have told the Yorkshire Post there is evidence that artefacts are being sold on websites such as eBay and via online forums after being collected by nighthawks.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at the British Museum in London, has monitored the sale of antiquities on eBay and noted many metal detector finds were being offered with no provenance or only very vague details.
York Council’s archaeologist, John Oxley, claimed nighthawks place invaluable historical evidence at risk of being lost forever.
He added: “Nighthawking destroys archaeological evidence, and while it is only a very small percentage of metal detectorists who are responsible for it, they are causing a huge amount of damage. There is evidence to suggest that people who are involved in nighthawking are involved in other crimes, such as burglary. They are not interested in unearthing the past, they are motivated by money and only interested in selling on what is Britain’s heritage.
“A lot of antiquities are offered for sale, and I would not be surprised in the slightest that a significant percentage has been obtained through nighthawking.
“We are aware of groups coming from the North East and elsewhere in the country into Yorkshire to target specific sites. Britain’s history and heritage is world famous, but with that comes very real risks of people wishing to exploit it for their own gain.”
A national network, called the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage (ARCH), has been launched, with one of its primary aims to tackle illegal metal detecting. A conference in Sheffield in September will be attended by members of organisations which have joined ARCH, including police forces, English Heritage and the Country Land and Business Association.
An eBay spokeswoman stressed the website works closely with the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme and will remove items for sale based on their advice. She added: “We are ready and willing to investigate any listings causing concern.”