Treasure raiders scooping up UK heritage





Not all treasure thieves tiptoe through the shells of Iraqi museums or churn up the deserts of Peru in their hunt for valuable antiquities. Nearer to home "nighthawkers" are using metal detectors and online auctions to strip rural Britain of its archaeological riches, and their illegal activities are proving every bit as destructive.

English Heritage has been so concerned about the extent of the depredation that it commissioned a study, which revealed that what was once an illicit hobby has mushroomed into a semi-professional criminal industry.

According to police, thieves have formed loosely connected networks to trade information, often in online forums, about new and vulnerable sites.

Some farmers have been threatened after confronting groups trespassing on their land at night.

The survey, published today, found that while bronze axes, Roman coins, Saxon jewels and other precious scraps of British history are being looted from officially protected sites and open farmland, few nighthawkers are being prosecuted. Many landowners do not report the thefts as they believe police will find them difficult to prove, or they think that even if a case reaches court the penalties will be paltry.

The study found the practice to be most prevalent in eastern and central regions, such as Norfolk, Essex and Oxfordshire, which are rich in sites ranging from the prehistoric to medieval eras.

More than 200 raids were reported between 1995 and 2008, more than a third of them affecting scheduled ancient monuments. Archaeologists believe this figure represents the tip of the iceberg. To their despair, in the handful of cases that have gone to court the thieves usually received just a caution, or a fine as low as £38. Not surprisingly, only 14% of landowners bother to report this type of crime, knowing that unless the nighthawkers are caught red-handed the most the criminals are likely to be accused of is trespass, according to the survey.



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