Metal detector pair sentenced for stealing artefacts

Northamptonshire Police take a plaster cast of tool marks after Cox and West dug trenches for illegal metal detecting
Northamptonshire Police take a plaster cast of tool marks after Cox and West dug trenches for illegal metal detecting

For the first time in England, two metal detector users have been given a suspended custodial sentence and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO) by the court for carrying out illegal metal detecting activities on a protected site.

Peter Cox, 69, and Darren West, 51, both from Northamptonshire, were sentenced by Northampton Crown Court on Thursday, December 19, to one year imprisonment, suspended for two years, after pleading guilty to stealing artefacts from and causing serious damage to a scheduled monument at Chester Farm, near Irchester.

This is the result of an investigation by a heritage crime partnership involving English Heritage, Northamptonshire Police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the British Museum.

The sentences also included 150 hours of community service, a curfew, confiscation of metal detecting equipment, compensation for damage caused to the scheduled monument, and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders that restrict use of metal detecting equipment.

The scheduled monument at Chester Farm, owned by Northamptonshire County Council (NCC), includes Iron Age and medieval settlement remains but is most significant for its surviving remains of a Roman walled town that includes roads, temples and many other buildings. The site has long suffered from trespassers, and a Grade II* listed 16th and 17th century farm house on the site was seriously damaged by arson in 2010.

Northamptonshire Police launched an investigation after two English Heritage officers witnessed the two men metal detecting on the scheduled monument last July. Damage had also been caused to the scheduled monument by the excavation of trenches, which had been illegally dug in search of artefacts.

The police responded swiftly, arrested the men and conducted a raid at their homes. A large amount of Iron Age, Roman and medieval coins, metal artefacts and pottery, along with metal detecting equipment and documents relating to the scheduled monument were recovered.

Experts from the British Museum helped to identify and date the archaeological finds. English Heritage submitted a heritage impact statement that highlights the national importance of the site and the irreversible damage caused by Cox and West.

Mike Harlow, governance and legal director of English Heritage, said: “The sentence today sets an important watershed in the combat against illegal metal detecting and acknowledges its true impact on society.

“These are not people enjoying a hobby or professionals carrying out a careful study. They are thieves using metal detectors like a burglar uses a jemmy. The material they are stealing belongs to the landowner and the history they are stealing belongs to all of us. Once the artefacts are removed from the ground and sold the valuable knowledge they contain is lost for ever. This is a notoriously difficult crime to prosecute and convict. We are very grateful to the police and CPS in this case whose partnership working is an example we would wish to see elsewhere.”

Mark Holmes, senior crown prosecutor and heritage crime co-ordinator for CPS East Midlands, said: “This practice of illegal metal detecting and stealing artefacts from the ground has been a growing problem, which the Crown Prosecution Service takes seriously. Often carried out by so-called ‘enthusiasts’, this kind of activity has retained a veneer of respectability which it just does not deserve. Land is being damaged; the theft of ancient artefacts robs us of important information about our heritage and the artefacts themselves are lost to the public.

“This case is the largest scale operation we have prosecuted for this type of crime. It should serve as a warning to anyone else involved in this activity that it is a crime and if you are caught you face prosecution and a criminal record. The CPS will continue to work closely with our partners in preventing heritage crime and ensuring perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Chief Inspector Nick Lyall, Northamptonshire Police, said: “After an extensive joint investigation between many agencies we are happy with today’s court result. It will send a clear message to those that want to disrupt historic sites in the future. ”

Councillor Heather Smith, Northamptonshire County Council’s cabinet member for customers and communities, said: “As a scheduled ancient monument, Chester Farm is of exceptional national importance, so these offences were extremely serious. This court case sends out the message that the county council will not hesitate to prosecute anyone who interferes with the site and Northamptonshire will not tolerate anyone who contemplates a crime against heritage. It saddens me immensely that we will never know the full extent of the damage caused by these criminals, to a site of such cultural importance.”