$15K fine for Hamilton treasure hunter

BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 05:00 28/11/2012

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A would-be treasure hunter has been slammed with a hefty fine after raiding a Hamilton historic site, leaving an archaeological dig in chaos.

But while heritage guardians are outraged by his actions, the wayward antique dealer told police he was only trying to save the antique bottles he was pilfering, from destruction.

Adam Ross Archer, 41, - owner of Peachgrove Antiques - had earlier pleaded guilty to a charge of digging up the site at the Hamilton Club on Grantham St in February.

Archer was yesterday fined $15,000 and ordered to pay costs after being sentenced at the Hamilton District Court for an incident the New Zealand Historic places Trust called a callous act of destruction.

The court heard that on the morning of February 23, work by New Zealand Historic Places Trust archaeologists at the site - protected by a 1.8m fence - was stopped due to heavy rain.

About 4.40pm, Project Grantham employee David Carley noticed Archer on the site digging with a spade.

When asked what he was doing, Archer replied he was "looking at a drain". He then pulled an old, glass bottle out of the hole he was digging.

He pushed it through the fence and into weeds outside the site.

Archer quickly backfilled the hole and ran away down a hill, clambering over a fence, when Mr Carley pulled out his cellphone.

A search in the weeds later found a number of bottles, including a schnapps bottle, one gin bottle and three sauce bottles.

A search of the area where Archer had been digging also turned up several "probe holes" where seven other historic bottles were found, each of them estimated at more than 120 years old.

When questioned by police, Archer said he had read about the excavation and went there to "save the bottles from destruction".

Judge Merelina Burnett said had it not been for Archer getting interrupted, it was unclear how long he would have continued digging.

She said Archer's actions not only created a disturbance but also made it difficult for archaeologists to work out where the items came from and perhaps how they got there in the first place.

"Whether or not he was to profit from his find it's a matter of conjecture, what can be inferred is that he is in the business of selling items and at the very least to have possession of such items would have had an impact ... in the purchasing community."

Archer had previously been convicted of a similar offence in 2001, after digging up an elderly woman's garden while she was on holiday.

Archer's counsel had argued for a starting point of a fine between $5000 or $6000, but that was dismissed by Judge Burnett who said a starting point of $16,000 was more appropriate.

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After the sentencing, NZHPT regional archaeologist Dr Rachel Darmody said Archer risked destroying important historical artefacts with his careless digging.

Dr Darmody described Archer's actions as "brazen", having been carried out in broad daylight. It was the first time the organisation had prosecuted someone twice for the same offence.

"He's quite obsessive about his collecting. It's hard to know if it was for commercial gain or not, I think he's just a bit obsessive."

Bottles can range widely in price depending on age. More than 1000 were listed under antiques and collectables on Trademe last night, ranging from $1 bottle collections to single ginger beer bottles priced up to $350.

COURT 'BIASED' - ARCHER

Archer is promising to appeal against his conviction and fine.

Archer last night told the Waikato Times he considered Judge Merelina Burnett's ruling on the case "unfair and biased".

He denied the basic facts of the case as presented to the court in the police summary, claiming he had never climbed a fence into the dig site.

Instead, he said he had walked through an open space in the driveway to gain access.

He also denied saying he was looking for a drain.

Archer - a member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust until last year - went to the site to save the bottles as the site looked more like a demolition zone than an archaeological site.

He said he had lost respect for the trust - especially after the organisation's decision to sign off on the demolition of the Christ Church Cathedral, damaged in last year's earthquake.

As for his conviction in 2001, when he dug up an elderly woman's garden while she was away, Archer said he was being scapegoated.

He claimed that at the time he had authority to be there as part of the NZ Bottle Collectors Association.

He said the woman had even brought them out drinks while they were working at her property.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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