A gang of nighthawkers stole Bronze Age axes and coins from English Heritage sites 'for the craic' - then discussed flogging the priceless artefacts on eBay.
The five Tameside men donned camouflage clothing and head torches as they slipped through gaps in the walls of Beeston Castle, Cheshire.
Operating under the cover of darkness, the crooks dug 'at least 70 holes' in the grounds of the 13th Century castle between December 13 and 15, 2019.
They also targeted Grade II listed Roche Abbey in Yorkshire.
Despite a lack of historical knowledge and only two metal detectors between them, the nighthawkers managed to make off with 'irreplaceable' Bronze Age axes and coins.
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WhatsApp messages showed the gang discussed listing the items on eBay - before being snared after deciding to flog the historic artefacts on the antiques market.
Now, Curtis Barlow, Gary Flanagan, Daniel James Lloyd, John Andrew Lorne, and Francis James Ward have alll been handed criminal behaviour orders, at Chester Magistrates Court on Friday, May 7.
All five have also been prohibited from visiting English Heritage sites and metal detecting for five years after pleading guilty to a number of offences.
It is the first ever ban of its kind for ‘nighthawking’ in England and Wales.
Sentencing, District Judge Nicholas Sanders told the gang their crime would rob future generations the chance to work out 'the history of this country'.
He said: “I give you full credit for pleading guilty, and you will now understand how serious such an offence is regarded.
“These are national heritage assets and they are protected — and the law is there to protect them for a reason, so in generations to come people can do a proper research to work out the history of this country.
“By doing what you did you had the potential to prejudice some of those investigations.”
Nighthawking is the theft of archaeological artefacts from protected historical sites, usually during evenings or at night..
The behaviour orders prohibit the men from metal detecting on English and Welsh heritage sites, and must get explicit written permission from landowners for other detecting activities.
PC Ashley Tether, from Cheshire Constabulary's rural crime unit, described to Manchester Evening News how the gang were captured.
“This case started in 2019 and we had a lead to two possible suspects and as a result they were arrested on New Year’s Day in 2020,” he said.
“On that day, we recovered two bronze age axes which we believe were taken from Beeston Castle itself, and further investigation highlighted that other individuals were involved and had also been to another location in South Yorkshire — Roche Abbey.
“The value of the axe heads is unknown, you can’t put a price on history.
“While we can’t put a fixed value on them, the important thing to note is that we have lost the context of these items, we can’t pinpoint exactly where they were dug up — there could have been a bronze age settlement there.”
“In terms of historical finds, it’s really important you see them within the context of where they are found,” Beeston Castle site manager Kate Cooper added.
“That tells you the bigger picture of its story, so without that context you’ve lost its history, you’ve lost its story.
“We don’t know where the items were found, so we can’t link it to Beeston’s history.
“What happened was absolutely devastating for us as a site, we’re a close knit team of staff and volunteers, and we feel very protective of the site.
“To see that people have done this was devastating but the support we had from the police and Historic England was brilliant.”
The gang dug ‘at least 70 holes’ at Beeston Castle in December 2019, and attempted to sell the items they discovered on the antiques market.
After the items were recovered, Historic England helped the police investigation by identifying what had been taken, and analysing soil samples to uncover which historical site the artefacts had been removed from.
Catherine Dewar, Historic England’s north west regional director, said the men had ‘stolen our history’.
She told the MEN : “These men have carried out this illegal act and really it is stealing our history to make a personal profit.
“It is illegal, but also ethically wrong. They are irreplaceable and valuable objects.”
PC Tether also outlined how it is becoming a worsening problem in the area around Beeston Castle in Cheshire.
He says ever since a pair of legitimate detectorists uncovered a £12 million haul of viking gold in Worcestershire - others have been trying to get in on the act for personal gain.
“A lot of people are doing it because they’re interested in the heritage," he said. "And the vast majority who go out detecting do it for the right reasons and it’s a very small majority who do it for the wrong reasons.”
Both he and Ms Potter are urging anyone to report nighthawking if they suspect it nearby.
The officer added: “Nighthawking is a criminal offence — if someone is on the grounds illegally metal detecting you should ring 999 and report it to the police.”
Curtis Barlow, 32, of The Quadrant, Droylsden, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between 13 and 15 December 2019.
He was fined £520, and ordered to pay £85 costs and a £52 surcharge.
Gary Flanagan, 33, of Winton Avenue, Audenshaw, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey between 13 and 30 December 2019.
He was fined £1,100, ordered to pay a £110 surcharge and £85 in costs.
Daniel James Lloyd, 33, of Beech Avenue, Droylsden, admitted taking bronze age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019.
He was given £600 fine, £60 surcharge, and ordered to pay £85 in costs.
John Andrew Lorne, 29, of Sunnyside Road, Droylsden, admitted taking bronze age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019, and removing coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between 28 and 30 December 2019.
He was fined £1,600, and ordered to pay a £160 surcharge and £85 in costs.
Francis James Ward, 32, of Dingle Drive, Droylsden, admitted taking a bronze age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019.
He also admitted producing a small quantity of cannabis. He was fined £800 for the offences, and a further £500 for the possession of a cannabis plant.
He was also ordered to pay a £130 surcharge and costs of £85.