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nighthawking

noun [uncountable] British

the illegal activity, usually at night, of using metal detectors to look for very old and valuable objects in areas where you do not have permission to search, and of stealing any objects that you find

nighthawker or nighthawk

noun [countable] British

'The region's hidden heritage is under threat from clandestine “nighthawks” who venture out in the dark to search for buried artefacts from the past … English Heritage's inspector for ancient monuments, Neil Redfern, said: “Quite apart from the fact that nighthawking is illegal, it also causes untold damage to our heritage” …'

The Northern Echo 16th February 2009

'Heritage executives want the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to crack down on nighthawkers, who use the latest equipment to find antiquities, which they then sell on websites such as eBay.'

The Times 16th February 2009

Armed with a metal detector and information about the latest plans for a new road or housing development, it seems that the more unscrupulous among us have found a new way to make some illegal cash. When the bulldozers are turned off and the workforce have gone home, nightfall is the perfect opportunity to do a spot of nighthawking, in the hope that, amongst the clay and grime, you'll find an antiquity which could make you rich.

Nighthawking is defined as the activity of using metal-detecting equipment to locate and remove buried antiquities without the permission of landowners or where the practice is banned. Perpetrators, known as nighthawks or nighthawkers, usually operate between 10pm and 3am, often exchanging information about new sites over the Internet. In a bizarre twist, they are unintentionally aided by the Treasure Act of 1996, which stipulates that all finds must be published, thereby alerting them to the areas where they're most likely to find things. Evidence suggests that the majority of the illicit digging takes place on areas of soft soil in East Anglia, Kent, Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

the maximum penalty for nighthawking is three months in prison and a £5,000 fine

Nighthawk(er)s fall into two categories: the sellers, those who want to make a quick buck by selling their finds on to unscrupulous dealers, and the hoarders, individuals who want to add precious and rare objects to a private collection. In both cases nighthawk(er)s are guilty of pilfering British heritage (some precious finds end up in the USA for example).

In an attempt to raise awareness and encourage the police to crack down on nighthawking, the UK organisation English Heritage (a government commission which protects and maintains historical sites) launched a Nighthawking Survey. The survey, published in February 2009, revealed that a third of its 88 protected ancient sites had been raided, especially high-profile Roman settlements. Looters also targeted a further 152 agricultural plots of land, damaging crops and fields, as well as official archaeological digs authorised by the culture secretary. The maximum penalty for nighthawking is three months in prison and a £5,000 fine, but the majority of cases do not even reach court. English Heritage therefore believes that the 240 raids reported by police between 1995 and 2008 probably represent only a fraction of the amount of nighthawking going on in Britain.

Background – nighthawking and nighthawk

Though the terms nighthawking and nighthawk(er) have hit the spotlight in the context of the recent survey, the concept first emerged in the early 1970s when metal detecting (using special electronic equipment to locate buried coins and other metal objects) became a popular hobby.

The use of night is self explanatory, and hawk(-ing/-er) is used metaphorically to convey the predatory nature of the activity. It's possible that the noun hawker and related verb hawk also connect, referring to (a person engaging in) the activity of selling goods informally in public places.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 16th April 2009.

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