Nighthawks nabbed – undeclared hoard subject of police raid

Posted on: June 20, 2019 by

Nighthawks (illegal metal detectorists) are a constant problem for archaeologists and the farmers on whose land they illegally trespass. Aside from the offence under the Treasure Act 1996 of failing to declare finds within 14 days of discovery, the loss of context is critical for archaeologists seeking to understand the find as a whole.

Treasure and the Treasure Act have featured frequently in this blog and in the news over the last few months. Treasure can capture the imagination of any aspiring amateur archaeologist and historian but at the same time it is a constant lure for more dishonest individuals who are looking to get rich quick.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport conducted an open consultation earlier this year on the future of the Treasure Act to which the IAL responded, as discussed in the blog last month. The issue of nighthawks was not directly addressed by the consultation, but has been drawn to our attention again by news of a raid by Durham Constabulary on various properties in County Durham and Lancashire.

The raid uncovered a large number of coins probably belonging to an important hoard thought to come from an area around the known location of the Viking army after its defeat by King Alfred in AD 878. While the context of these coins is unfortunately likely to be lost as they were not reported after being found, the coins themselves are highly important in their own right. They depict either King Alfred the Great of Wessex or Ceolwulf II of Mercia, a less well-known nobleman who was reported by the chroniclers of Alfred’s court as being a Viking sympathiser. As such it seems that both were using the same coin-issuing system, and some of the coins even show two unnamed rulers standing side by side. These coins can therefore provide significant insight into a tumultuous period in Anglo-Saxon history, especially as Ceolwulf II disappeared from records after AD 879 when King Alfred took over his lands.

The coins are now in the British Museum and the investigation is ongoing. Interestingly, another potential criminal offence which might be relevant is that of dishonestly dealing in tainted cultural objects under the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, according to reports. It will be interesting to see whether this charge is pursued; as regular readers of the blog may recall, there has only been one reported conviction under this Act to date. It is to be hoped that the perpetrators of this heritage crime will be adequately punished and that it serves as a warning to future nighthawks – the police do take heritage crime seriously and so it is crucial to report finds immediately.

Image credits: Engraving depicting Alfred the Great via Wikimedia Commons