Historic England have revealed fresh details about the attack by thieves on the nationally important Eastfield Roman site near Scarborough North Yorkshire, which took place at some time overnight between 14 and 15 April. The attack on the site, which North Yorkshire Police described in a media statement as causing damage to fencing and to the land, is now known to have resulted in damage to the floor of the building. It has also been revealed that there have been previous episodes of illegal metal detecting in the Eastfield area. Although it is not known currently if there have been any earlier attempts to enter the development site, owned by Keepmoat Homes, where the unique building complex was found.
Asked by thePipeLine to provide more details of the attack on the high status site Keith Emerick, Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England, explained,
“We are aware of a number of incidences of illegal activity at the site of the newly discovered Roman buildings at Eastfield over the past week, including damage made to the floor of the Roman villa building.”
Mr Emerick also put the attack on the site in context saying that the archaeological potential of the area has been publicly known for some time, adding,
“…illegal metal detecting, also known as ‘nighthawking’ has taken place repeatedly in recent years.”
This is a significant comment suggesting that the attack on the villa site was not necessarily a one off, but may be in fact only the most recent, and most serious, example of such heritage crimes in North Yorkshire.
It is not known what, if any, objects were taken by the would be thieves.
Mr Emerick pointed out that such activities are a serious crime and can result in charges of not just theft, but also criminal damage.
He added that it is to combat such illegal activities that,
“Historic England, in partnership with other heritage organisations and the police, operate Operation Chronos, an initiative to combat illegal metal detecting.”
Coordinated by PC Andy Long of Essex police, Operation Chronos is a national initiative working primarily through police rural crime teams, but Yorkshire is thought to be especially vulnerable to illegal metal detecting because it has both a rich heritage and large stretches of rural land.
As recently as 9 April  five men from Thameside, Greater Manchester, admitted heritage related offences at Chester Magistrates Court, some of which were committed in South Yorkshire.
Three of the men, Curtis Barlow, 32, Gary Flanagan, 33, and John Andrew Lorne, 29, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from the Scheduled medieval Roche Abbey near Rotherham at some time between 13 and 15 December 2019.
The Police investigation suggested the men had discussed their activities in a private WhatsApp group.
Mr Emerick also confirmed that,
“We [Historic England] are working in partnership with North Yorkshire Police on its investigation into the illegal activity at Eastfield.”
The issue is not just one of theft and potential damage to important archaeological sites such as the villa at Eastfield. Violent criminality can also be involved.
In April 2019 a farmer at Pocklington in South Yorkshire was assaulted and left with a serious head injury after confronting a group of men illegally metal detecting on his land. The men fled the scene in a vehicle believed to be a silver Audi.
During the investigation into the alleged attack Humberside Police arrested four men. However, they were released pending further enquiries and the crime remains unsolved.
However, in spite of what seems to be a recent increase in cases and convictions of metal detectorists appearing in the courts, a spokesperson for Historic England stressed that in the opinion of the heritage regulator, the vast majority of detectorists are law abiding, seek appropriate consents for their activities from landowners and also report and record any finds they make with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
The voluntary scheme is run by British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and operates through a network of forty one regional Finds Liaison Officers.
The spokesperson also pointed out that since November 2020 Historic England has been working also with Police Services in England and Wales, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the main representative body for the hobby, the National Council for Metal Detecting, to deliver training to detectorists as part of the Heritage Watch scheme.
The spokesperson concluded,
“Unfortunately there are a few individuals who do not abide by the law and we will continue to work with the police to protect vulnerable sites and combat heritage related crime.”
Anyone with information about the attack on the Eastfield villa site is asked to contact North Yorkshire Police on 101, quoting reference 12210098319.
General Advice about combating heritage crime in North Yorkshire is available on the North Yorkshire Police Heritage Crime page.
Operation Chronos can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nationally advice is offered by Historic England and other agencies.