Nighthawking at Rendlesham

October 14, 2009

‘Nighthawking’ is the illegal metal-detecting of sites and theft of finds, usually conducted under cover of darkness.
It is not only illegal, since it usually involves trespass, criminal damage and theft, but also highly destructive on sites which are of great importance to our understanding of the past. Until a site is ‘scheduled’ (officially recognized as of national importance, and designated as such) there are no penalties for removing material with the landowner’s permission. But many important sites are unrecognized – precisely because the thieves are looting them covertly and want to keep the locations secret.
Recent media coverage of a pending prosecution has highlighted the problem of Rendlesham, Suffolk, a site mentioned by Bede in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (III.22) as mansio rendili, the ‘house of Rendel’ or in old English Rendles ham, still the name of a village in east Suffolk. Bede’s mention of the site is in connection with the baptism of an East Saxon king during his stay with an East Anglian king. The implication is that Rendlesham was a royal site in the mid-7th century, and that it was an appropriate location for kings to entertain royal guests – a royal feasting hall, accommodation buildings, service buildings and an early church would seem to be the minimum one would expect to find here.
Despite such written documentation, the Rendlesham site has never been identified on the ground, and therefore it has never been scheduled. However, local landowner Sir Michael Bunbury applied to the County Council Archaeological Service about his Naunton Hall estate and the damage done to his property by nocturnal metal-detectorists. The area has been targetted based not only on Bede’s evidence, but also the 19th century find of an Anglian urn burial at Haw Hill, and the results of a fieldwalking survey conducted in 1982 prior to the erection of a new barn. The Woodbridge-based Sutton Hoo Society pledged financial support for a new survey of the area of the estate and extensive fieldwork was begun in October 2008. While this work was in progress, the site was attackd on several occasions. Sir Michael Bunbury was able to provide information to the local police which resulted in the arrest of five men – one local and four from outside the county.
Part of the importance of the Rendlesham site is in its association with King Rædwald, the East Anglian Bretwalda or overlord of all southern Britain, who is still the best candidate for the burial in Mound 1 at Suton Hoo. Bede relates the story of Rædwald’s conversion to Christianity and how he erected an altar to Christ in his existing temple to the heathen gods: as a polytheist, the king would have seen no conflict in this, but the monotheist Bede heartily disapproved. Rendlesham therefore has the potential to offer a great deal of information about the conversion of the English from the old religion to the new – with all the implications for social and economic change which this entailed.
Because Rendlesham is so important, it is to be hoped that whoever is convicted of the crime of looting the site is dealt with harshly as an example to others. Failure to offer a meaningful deterrent in this high-profile case will be construed as encouragement by the looters.

The Sutton Hoo Society can be found here


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