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Anger at Canterbury Archaeology Trust break-in

By Gerry Warren

An angry war of words has erupted in the aftermath of the theft of more than 1,500 irreplaceable historic items.

The break-in last month made headlines around the world after crooks ransacked stores used by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (Cat) in a crime described as "a disaster for the city".

Some of the items stolen date back to the Iron Age.

The scene of devestation after the break-in
The scene of devestation after the break-in

Now, while the hunt begins to recover the items, the trust has hit out over security at the former Serco site in Kingsmead. The trust rented a unit from the city council.

Trust director Paul Bennett said: “For the past six to eight weeks, metal thieves have been systematically removing copper and lead pipes and stripping cables across the complex, breaking holes through walls to get from one property to another.

“All this metal theft had been happening without our knowledge – we were not told by the city council – and, more importantly, without the police being informed.

“Our kitchen and toilet were stripped of pipes, causing hundreds of pounds worth of damage.

“A heavy-duty electric cable was cut and stripped for copper wire. Our workshop was broken into and numerous hand tools were stolen, including electric drills and chisels.”

Items were left strewn across the floor. Pictures: Canterbury Archaeological Trust
Items were left strewn across the floor. Pictures: Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Mr Bennett believes they came across the finds by chance.

But he is critical of the city council which he blamed for not ensuring the site remained secure after Serco moved out.

He said: “It is immensely regrettable that the city council did not inform us of the metal thieves and, above all, allowed the break-ins to continue without informing the police and making a pro-active attempt to catch the thieves.

“Our building is now fully alarmed at great expense.

"All this is after the horse has bolted, we know, but we must catch the thieves as soon as possible to get back these precious and unique collections.”

But city council spokesman Rob Davies said: “We refute any suggestion that they were unaware of security concerns in the area.

Anglo-Saxon glass beads were stolen in the burglary
Anglo-Saxon glass beads were stolen in the burglary

“It is entirely Cat’s responsibility to ensure the security of their store and we are surprised they did not have more robust measures in place, especially after Serco moved out.

“We reject suggestions we have not told the police about break-ins and other incidents at Kingsmead, and have taken steps to maintain security across the development site as much as possible.”

The night-time raids were between January 22 and 24.

Members of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust found a scene of devastation when they discovered its storeroom had been raided.

Not only were 1,500 items missing, but other finds had been scattered around the buildings – leaving volunteers facing hours of work to re-catalogue and record the exact losses.

The precious finds were the result of the numerous digs which had taken place over the past 40 years in the city centre.

The burglary left the archive in a mess
The burglary left the archive in a mess

News of the losses were shared worldwide across social media, including from renowned anthropologist and TV presenter Professor Alice Roberts.

Trust director Paul Bennett said: “These finds represent the history of the city – our collective history. They were for display and study for generations to come.

“It is a disaster for the trust and the city and one of the worst things to happen in my memory.”

The haul includes hundreds of coins, Anglo-Saxon coloured glass beads, brooches, buckles, bone objects, dress accessories and metal fittings, many of great antiquity.

Among the finds were many from the Whitefriars dig which were meticulously recorded and stored in boxes and used for educational purposes.

Mr Bennett said: “It’s heart-breaking for our education officer Marion Green who has spent years building up the collections for school use.”

Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd> Picture: Google Maps
Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd> Picture: Google Maps

There are calls for more of the city’s rich heritage to be put on public show in the wake of the raids.

It comes from Liberal Democrat campaigners James Flanagan and Mike Sole who say it is a scandal that so many artefacts are “hidden away” in warehouses.

“We would like to see display cabinets in secure locations around the district,” said Mr Flanagan.

“The more valuable pieces could be available for us all to enjoy in the foyers of our banks or at the city council offices and The Beaney.

"Others might be the Marlowe Theatre, Kent Cricket Ground, schools, colleges, universities or even some larger shops and other venues in Herne Bay and Whitstable.”

Canterbury Archaeological Trust director Paul Bennett
Canterbury Archaeological Trust director Paul Bennett

Trust outreach and archives manager Andrew Richardson said the amount of material held at Kingsmead is beyond what would be possible to display publicly.

He said: “When we move to Wincheap, what we would like to create is not just a store, but a properly accessible archaeological resource centre, which will allow access to the collections for researchers.

“We have always been very open to working with local businesses to create a variety of displays across the city, drawing on these collections.

"It is a good idea. However, it will need resourcing.

"As things stand, we cannot afford the time or materials necessary to achieve that.”

  • Anyone with information about the theft is asked to contact police on 01843 222289.

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