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Britain’s Secret Army of Metal Detectors – Who Outperform Archaeologists

But it’s the last image that caught my attention: a series of holes dug on a Listed Monument, a legally protected archaeological site, and filled in. (The site is unfenced and therefore extremely vulnerable; its custodians do not wish its identity to be published.) The holes were the work of a subset of heritage criminals who use metal detectors and are known by some under the name of “nightjars”, as they generally operate at night. They weren’t caught and it’s impossible to know what, if anything, they picked up.

There is little reliable data on the extent of peddling, as much of it goes unreported or undetected, but listed monuments that have been attacked in recent years include Hadrian’s Wall, Castle of Goodrich in Herefordshire and Old Sarum in Wiltshire. Nightjars have also been known to “launder” illegally obtained items by “planting” them at organized metal detecting gatherings and then pretending to find them, giving them a legitimate provenance.

By far the most notorious night peddling case in the UK is that of the Herefordshire Treasury, looted from a field near Leominster in 2015. This collection of treasures, including an exquisite crystal pendant held in a golden harness, had been buried by Vikings in the 9th century and was discovered by two South Country detectives of Wales, George Powell and Layton. Davies. Rather than declaring it, as required by the Treasury Act (1996), they started selling it.

The value of the items eventually recovered was estimated at £776,250, but the full hoard, if ever to be pieced together, could be worth up to £12 million. In 2019, Powell, Davies and an accomplice were jailed for a total of 23½ years (sentences reduced on appeal); another accomplice received a suspended sentence. An unusual aspect of the trial was that local archaeologists wrote a victim impact statement – ​​the victim being us, the impact being the loss of valuable history.

It’s a case that deservedly made national headlines, but how many burglaries of comparable magnitude are simply never discovered, let alone given the negative publicity they deserve?

The police response to heritage crime across the UK is led by Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Nolan of Essex Police. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Nolan warned of an “ever-changing” threat while his colleague, Detective Superintendent Jon Burgess, pointed the finger at illegal metal detecting. Nolan worries that the public — potentially a vital source of intelligence in detecting heritage crimes — simply doesn’t understand the significance of what’s lost. On the ground in Sussex, Holter shares his concern. “It’s only a small minority that targets artifact-rich sites with knowledge,” Holter told me, “but illicit metal detecting also includes a certain amount of people who receive a detector for a Christmas or birthday present and they don’t know the rules.

These rules mainly consist of obtaining permission from the owners of the land on which you wish to detect and reporting to the authorities – usually via the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), operated by the British Museum – any object that may fall within the legal definition of “treasure” (there are different criteria, but in general it must be at least 300 years old and contain at least 10% precious metals by weight). The declaration of treasure does not prevent you from benefiting from its possible sale. A treasure object is given a market value and is offered at that price to museums, the cost being shared between the discoverer and the landowner; if no one wants it, or if they are unable to raise the funds, it is up to the inventor and the landowner.

The PAS, run by a network of locally based archaeologists across England and Wales known as Discovery Liaison Officers (Scotland has a similar system, Treasure Trove), also has a voluntary element for the registration of objects that are not technically treasures but still archaeologically remarkable. (like this Saxon brooch or the ornate 17th century “dandy” button I found in a field near my house and reported to PAS earlier this year). In 2019, before Covid restrictions curtailed detective activities, the highest number of treasure finds (1,303) were recorded with PAS, out of a total of over 80,000 non-treasure finds. The most notable pieces included a Bronze Age gold arm ring found at St Bees in Cumbria and an Anglo-Norman coin hoard from the Chew Valley in Somerset.

PAS is the process by which detectorists contribute to the body of archaeological knowledge. Without it, the hobby of metal detecting would be contrary to the purposes of archeology and therefore subject to licensing or outright banning. This has happened in parts of Europe, but in the UK over the last quarter century the Treasure Act and PAS have transformed archaeological research.

In any given year, about 90% of significant archaeological finds are made not by professional archaeologists in organized digs, but by lucky amateur sleuths. The most striking example is the Staffordshire Hoard Anglo-Saxon hoard – the largest such cache ever found, worth £3.28million – discovered by Terry Herbert in 2009 using a detector he bought for a few pounds at a garage sale. The PAS database, which can be consulted on find.org.uknow contains over 1.6 million items and growing day by day.