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Who’s Digging Up Hadrian’s Wall?

Rogue diggers with metal detectors are threatening a priceless archaeological site

(Craig Easton/cultura/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Hadrian’s Wall is one of the world’s oldest richest historical artifacts: since 122 A.D., it has been a constant (and beloved) facet of Northern England’s landscape. But now conservationists warn that illegal digging is damaging the wall and threatening a crucial piece of history.

The wall, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is being targeted by rogue diggers with metal detectors, Hannah Furness reports for the Telegraph. The practice, known as “nighthawking,” is the pastime of some metal detector enthusiasts eager to uncover buried treasure from ages gone by. But it’s also illegal—and involves trespassing and clandestine amateur archaeological digs.

That’s a big problem for conservationists looking to preserve Britain’s archaeological heritage. They've already found evidence of pulled-up grass in two sites along the wall—and they suspect that nighthawkers in search of Roman-era jewelry, coins and other artifacts are to blame.

Mark Harrison, who advises English Heritage on crime, told Furness that though some digging can be accidental, there’s real heritage crime afoot:

We recognize that the majority of the metal detecting community comply with the laws and regulations relating to the discovery and recovery of objects from the land, but just as it is against the law to break into someone's house and steal their possessions, so it is illegal to damage land and steal valuable historical artifacts.

The objects they are stealing belong to the landowner, in this case the National Trust, and the history they are stealing belongs to all of us.

Stealing ancient artifacts can have serious consequences, as several thieves have learned. A couple years back, two men were found illegally metal detecting, and after police learned they had a stash of Iron Age and Roman artifacts, they were given suspended prison sentences and were forced to pay compensation and perform community service. Another pair of nighthawkers had their equipment confiscated after they used metal detectors to steal coins, buttons and other objects from an English Heritage site in Baylham.

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