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   Inside Out - East: Monday March 3, 2003

NIGHTHAWKERS - THE ILLEGAL METAL DETECTORISTS

Man metal detecting in a ploughed field
EYES DOWN | the search for treasure is not just a walk in the park

You need a keen eye and plenty of patience to be a metal detectorist. For one man, his patience has certainly paid off, but will others be pipped at the post by nighthawks? Inside Out delves into the world of detectoring.

Meet Mike Rutland, washing repair man to the stars - well, Inside Out’s Big George at least, and the finder of buried treasure.

Mike is a metal detectorist and his patience finally paid off after he uncovered very rare, bronze age gold bracelets on a site near Milton Keynes.

"When I first looked into the hole, I knew it was exciting, but I lifted out the first of the bracelets and realised how heavy it was, I swore. It was amazing," says Mike's detectorist partner, Gordon Heritage.

Gold bracelets
Mike and Gordons' patience certainly paid off when they discovered bronze age bracelets

These are the first bracelets of their kind to be discovered in this country and have been valued by the British Museum at an amazing £290,000 - although Mike insists this is excellent value for money!

Rich in history

And it seems that there is no better place to be a metal detectorist than East Anglia. Thanks to the rich history of the area and the non-corrosive soil, there are more finds in this area than anywhere else in the country.

But before you grab your trowel and head for the nearest field, take heed, unearthing a discovery is a complicated process, if you follow the correct channels that is!

All finds must be declared and taken to a local museum or archaeological centre. The museum then notifies the Site and Monuments Record.

Treasure
  • A find is regarded as treasure if it is:
    • more than 300 years old
    • more than 10% gold or silver
  • The finder has to report it to the local coroner within 14 days.
  • The coroner takes the find to a local museum or archaeological centre.
  • The museum receiving the find has to notify the Sites and Monuments Record.
  • If the find is important, the site will be excavated.
  • If the museum decides to keep the find, the coroner holds an inquest to decide if it is treasure.
  • If it is treasure, it is valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee.
  • The money is shared between the landowner and the finder.

If the museum wants to keep the find, a coroner holds an inquest to decide if it is treasure.

The independent body, the Treasure Valuation Committee, are responsible for valuing the treasure and any money is split between the land owner and the finder.

Mike and Gordon followed such procedures and after two years of complicated, bureaucratic wrangling, they each received £89,000.

But was it worth all the trouble? Yes - but only just explains Gordon:

"It's a relief that it's now over. At one point in the whole process, I wished we'd never found the hoard."

"We did everything right and it seems as if we were punished."

Nighthawks

Gordon Heritage
Reporting the find caused endless headaches for Gordon and Mike - their reward materialised after two years

So recovering a find may not be as easy as it first seems and there are some who chose to shun the legal route altogether in favour of a quicker, more profitable answer.

They are known in the business as ‘nighthawks’.

Nighthawks trespass on to land and any finds are sold on to unscrupulous dealers, rather than officially declared.

The nighthawks are unintentionally aided by the Treasure Act of 1996, which stipulates that all finds must be published, thereby alerting rogue detectorists to sites.

Nighthawks also gain information by joining legitimate metal detectors clubs.

Inside Out met one farmer who has been plagued by nighthawks, ever since his land was declared an Ancient Monument Site.

Stealing the nation's heritage

John Browning
John Browning has suffered the nuisance of nighthawks for over 20 years

John Browning has suffered the nuisance of nighthawks on his land since 1981. He has had ten on his land in the last two months and one, the very day before Inside Out arrived!

"The nighthawks, thieves I call them, are looking for the jackpot," explains John. "They're motivated by money, greed and have no interest in history whatsoever."

Not only do they cause damage to John’s crops, they are pilfering our nation’s heritage. Several illegal British finds have ended up in the USA.

In the past, the police have been extremely pro-active and John even had his own pre-arranged code word to report the nighthawks.

In all, 30 people have been caught nighthawking on John’s land, with some turning violent on arrest.

Most got away with small fines, whilst two got short prison sentences.

So a pastime for the faint of heart - it isn’t! But if you still think you could be the next finder of buried treasure - the legal way - why not contact your local Metal Detectors club?

If not - you can rest easy safe in the knowledge that buried treasure it may be, but easy money it is not!

With many correct channels to pass through and nighthawks only one step behind, maybe your trusty trowel could be put to better use in the garden!

See also ...

On bbc.co.uk
Archaeology and metal detecting (History)

On the rest of the web
The National Council for Metal Detecting
The Directory of British Archaeology - East Anglia

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

night flyer
you do everything by the book,does it work, no. Do you get a pat on the back, NO. You mention that you are a detectorist you are a condemned man , you have to wait years for your finds to be recorded and then if they have not been lost , you get half of what they are worth.

Steven
i have just started doing metal detecting and i think you should be able to go anywhere to do it. The way to control it is by having some sort of licence that costs a few pounds. If you are caught detecting without this licence you are liable to prosecution.

People that are caught nighthawking are banned from getting this licence and if they persist in doing it they are charged with theft.

The finds should belong to us all if you buy a detector and spend the time to find then they should be yours. Some of the items being found have been deposited before these people owned the land so what gives them the right to own them.

Finders keepers loser weepers.

John
Night hawking is my one and only hobby and I absolutely love it. I got into metal detecting 2 years ago and basicly I am too late in the game to find any decent land in the day, so I have to night hawk.

Russ
I dont condone nighthawking,but people like Tony Robinson have potrayed detectorists in such bad light,that gaining permission from farmers is getting harder and harder,and so is the introduction of the stewardship scheme.

So detectorists that were once as honest as the day was long that they detected now find themselves detecting later than they expected.

Allan
Night Hawkers should be severely punished for either theft of antiquities or attempted theft. If they are on someones land searching without permission it is obvious that they intend to take away and keep for themselves anything found.

Gary Brun (Norway)
As the administrator of www.minelabowners.com which is a forum for metaldetectorists.

We have over 500 members from all over the world. Not one of them is in favour of Night Hawking.

We are all in favour of these people being reported and punished. I just hope that these "greedy" people do not give the usual law abiding detectorists such a bad name.

Penny Clayton
As a member of a resposible club here in Colchester I would like it put on record that our members are responsible people who in the main, are more interested in history and quite often have learned an amazing ammount of, not only local history, but about all periods in our history.

They are as knowledgeable as some experts,and more so sometimes.

If Mr Browning wants to stop night hawks on his land , he could do this by letting a local club have access to it. They would be very protective and would make sure no night hawks visited it again.

Susan
First of all and on behalf of other Metel-detectors I would like to apologize to Mr John Browning who suffered the Nighthawks on his land.

As a member of a M.D.Club this is strictly out of bounds for any member to go out at night.

Before we go onto any land we always get permission from the landowner once this has been granted a contract will be drawn up and both landowner and club will sign this contract.

When any Artefact or Coin is found it is reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officers who will record the find which will then go on to a national data base which builds a picture of the past.

Colin Galvin
Most often, Archaeologists stress the importance of 'archaeological context' when excavating finds, and frequently complain that detectorists destroy the 'context' of an item when they dig something up.

If you have ever watched 'Time Team', you'll know that one of the first things that they do is move in with a JCB and scrape off the top 12 inches of topsoil, and I'm sure that this is almost certainly standard archaeological practice...

Shades of Pot, Kettle, Black?



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