More than 3500 coins have been found at the Leicestershire site - mostly made by the Iron Age tribe, the Corieltauvi. Courtesy of The British Museum.
Archaeologists have welcomed news that a man has been convicted of going onto an important excavation site in Leicestershire equipped to steal.
Raymond Tebble was seen at night in the field, near Market Harborough, which is one of the most significant Iron Age and Roman sites in the country. A police helicopter was scrambled and Tebble, from South Shields, was caught with a metal detector and a spade.
Wendy Scott, Finds Liaison Officer for Leicestershire County Council, told the 24 Hour Museum: “This conviction is really good news, it sends out the message that they will be caught.”
Many Roman finds, such as this gold earring, have turned up in Leicestershire. Courtesy Leicestershire County Council.
Tebble was sentenced to one month in prison and had his metal detector confiscated – the equivalent of an £800 fine - although this has been suspended pending an appeal.
In 2000, the first of a large hoard of Iron Age coins was unearthed there by an amateur archaeologist, followed in 2003 by the discovery of a Roman helmet. The finds led experts to believe the site was used for feasting or worship.
Dr JD Hill, Iron Age expert at the British Museum, said at the time that the discovery of the silver gilded helmet – the first of its kind to be found in Britain – was of “international significance”, and has likened the site to a cathedral. However, it has not yet been scheduled and efforts to keep its location secret, in the meantime, have been unsuccessful.
On the left you can see coins and bones, on the right the Roman helmet found on the Leicestershire site. Courtesy of The British Museum.
“The problem with this site is that we don’t have the resources to protect it,” said Wendy, adding that a meeting with police has been planned to discuss possible further measures to deter illicit relic collectors.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up to encourage metal detectorists to record and report their finds, so that they can be analysed by archaeologists and contribute to their bank of knowledge. In the last year, nearly 50,000 objects have been volunteered by detectorists keen to help.
Wendy believes that those who keep major finds to themselves are a minority, as evidenced by the attitude of metal detector club members: “Most people I’ve spoken to are really angry about this. It’s giving their hobby a bad name.”
The positioning of objects in the ground, or their context, tells archaeologists a great deal about how they got there. Courtesy of The British Museum.
According to experts, looters who secretly remove objects from the ground, most often by nightfall, can obstruct the course of archaeological investigation.
Speaking of the consequences of looting and the possibility of such incidences at the Leicestershire site, Wendy said: “We’ll never know what they dug up – it could be something completely unique. We came close to not having the Roman helmet.”
The Treasure Act 1996 makes it a legal obligation to report all finds of potential Treasure within 14 days of discovery, or upon realising that the find may be Treasure. The process allows museums to acquire Treasure items, in the event of which the finder and landowner will be rewarded.
Coins from the Iron Age hoard site where the looter was spotted. Courtesy of ULAS, the field archaeologists.
Wendy explained that looters usually sell their catches to private dealers: “A lot of the time they’ll be sold for a lot less than they’re worth… A dealer with a reputation to protect should ask where the items came from – they can also be convicted.”
Archaeologists are keeping an eye on the potential trade in antiquities on auction websites. If items for sale look suspicious, it is possible for police to intervene and take pieces in for analysis.
On the whole metal detectorists enjoy a good relationship with FLOs administering the PAS. Many of them believe it is in genuine amateur archaeologists’ interests to report finds as the officers can usually identify them, making the whole process much more rewarding.
This Saxon pendant from the 7th century AD was found by Mr P Devenyi of the Hinckley Search Society in 2003. Courtesy Leicestershire County Council.
Roger Bland, Head of Portable Antiquities, said: "Although using a metal detector on archaeological sites without permission might not seem like a serious offence, and often courts do not see it as such, the damage that such activities can do to the knowledge of our past is literally incalculable, certainly out of all proportion to the value of the objects that might have been removed."
"Leicestershire Police are to be congratulated on securing a conviction and it is important that this case be given the widest possible publicity to deter others who might be so inclined. Responsible detector users such as the National Council for Metal Detecting strongly disapprove of such activity and we in the Portable Antiquities Scheme are doing all we can to bring such cases to the attention of the police."
“The site is still under threat,” added Wendy, who was also pleased to note that “the locals are very good, they keep an eye on the place.”