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X Marks the Spot: Russ Thomas on the Murky World of Nighthawking

Posted on 22nd April 2021 by Mark Skinner

Russ Thomas's crime debut - and former Waterstones Thriller of the Month - Firewatching heralded an exciting new voice in detective fiction and now Russ (and DS Adam Tyler) return in the gripping Nighthawking. The novel revolves around the illegal practice of stealing ancient buried artefacts under cover of night and in this exclusive piece, Russ discusses both the history and law surrounding this shady activity. 

In 1983, two metal detectorist hobbyists found a stash of coins, buried at the siteof a Roman Temple in the village of Wanborough, Surrey. They reported their find to the local curators but before anything could be excavated, a group of treasure hunters – some believe as many as forty – descended on the site by moonlight and stole whatever they could get their hands on.

They’re called nighthawkers (sometimes nighthawks), amateur metal-detector enthusiasts who set out under cover of darkness to steal ancient antiquities fromprivate land. The problem has been around for a while. Detectors, which had been used primarily for locating buried mines after World War II, became much less expensive and easier to use during the 1970s and the hobby of metal detecting started to take off. Academics and scholars began to worry about the danger these men – because they were invariably men – represented, as they went about vandalising the past and plundering our knowledge of the ancient world.

When I sat down and thumbed through my notes looking for an idea for my second crime novel, I came across the term Nighthawking. I forget now where I first heard it, perhaps in a news report somewhere, but the fact was it had obviously piqued my interest once, many years ago, and now it did so again. Who were these strange people who snuck about under cover of darkness, grubbing about in the soil looking for treasure? What drove them to do it, when the chances of them finding anything much more important than a ringpull from a Quatro can, circa 1984, were slim to none? As a writer I’ve always been drawn to outliers and damaged characters so the temptation to look further into this curious phenomenon was irresistible.

There are approximately twenty thousand ‘detectorists’ in England and Wales, the vast majority of whom, I’m sure, are law abiding citizens. But in case you were thinking of taking up the hobby it’s important to know what the law says. The incident in Wanborough was instrumental in ushering in The Treasure Act of 1996 which essentially states that if the owner of buried treasure can’t be identified it belongs to the Crown. It establishes ‘treasure’ as any object that is more than three hundred years old, comprised of at least ten percent silver or gold. It exempts single coin finds, since these are too numerous to count, but any find of two or more coins must be reported to the Coroner. It’s not all bad news though. In an attempt to encourage the declaration of treasures uncovered, The Act allows for a reward to be offered that is usually split fifty-fiftybetween the finder and the owner of the land.

Large finds are rare but they do happen. In 2009 an unemployed man named Terry Herbert, who had bought his metal detector at a jumble sale for a few pounds, discovered an enormous hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork from the 7th century. This treasure trove became known as The Staffordshire Hoard and was eventually valued at more than £3 million. Herbert and the farmer friend who had allowed him to search his field then spectacularly fell out over the incident but eventually the reward was split between them.

But the temptation to go ‘underground’, if you’ll excuse the pun, must be high, especially considering the sums of money involved. The biggest nighthawking case in British history occurred in 2015, when two men, George Powell and Layton Davies, found a hoard of treasures including 300 Viking coins, on land belonging to Lord Cawley of Leominster. As well as being financially valuable, thecoins were culturally and historically significant too, since they proved a previousunknown alliance between King Alfred and King Ceolwulf II. But rather than declare what they found (they hadn’t got the correct permissions before they’d begun their search) they rushed back home and began enquiries on the internet.

These men, like many of their nighthawker predecessors, were not career criminals and their naivety was inevitably their undoing. The coins were so rare (the entire hoard has been valued at anything between £4 million and £15 million) that word of the discovery didn’t take long to reach the Finds Liaison Officer. After a lengthy investigation and much changing of their stories, Powell and Davies were jailed for a combined term of 18 and a half years. The vast majority of the coins were never recovered and it remains to be seen whether they managed to successfully sell them on the black market or whether they reburied them somewhere in anticipation of their eventual release from prison. The case is still under investigation.

It’s difficult to say how widespread the issue is. There’s no marker on the national police database for nighthawking and many forces identify the crime as theft or trespass. There does seem to be some evidence however that the phenomenon is increasing. One overlooked side-effect of the current lockdown situation due to Covid-19 and the Coronavirus pandemic, is the huge increase in the number of heritage sites that have been broken into. Castles, stately homes, even stone circles have all found themselves victims of the current crisis as less salubrious members of the treasure hunting fraternity have taken advantage of poorly staffed sites of historical interest in order to break-in and plunder them.

Not all metal detectorists are nighthawkers, and the quantity of antiquities uncovered by genuine hobbyists vastly outnumbers those dug up by paid archaeologists. But nighthawking, despite its glamorous, almost romantic sounding name, is a serious crime that steals us all of our past. Of course, the ramifications of the crime in my novel are somewhat greater... But then, it is a murder mystery after all.

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