Metal Detecting 101
An Overview of the Complicated History and Current State of Metal DetectingLast year, in Jupiter, FL, a man named William Mooney ran a metal detector over a spot near a county waterfront park and pinpointed the location of what, if his suspicions were true, was every amateur treasurer hunter’s dream. In an email, Mooney told county officials that he was “at least 90 percent sure” that he had found a chest of riches, possibly salvaged by survivors of a wrecked Spanish treasure ship and buried for safekeeping hundreds of years ago.
Mooney made what seemed like a generous offer: In exchange for permission to dig a small hole and retrieve the underground object, he would give the county 75 percent of the treasure. But after making the requisite jokes about Captain Jack Sparrow and how Spanish gold might help the government to meet its budget, officials heeded objections from the local historical society, which was aghast at the notion of letting a treasure hunter excavate in the vicinity of an ancient Indian mound in the park. Beyond that, officials also decided to ban Mooney and other amateur treasure hunters in the future. “Anyone with a metal detector can think they have found treasure,” county administrator Robert Weisman told the Sun-Sentinel, a local newspaper. “…We should not encourage this activity on county lands.”
That’s the conundrum raised by metal-detecting buffs, AKA “diggers,” a small but fervent subculture of mostly amateur hobbyists who use electronic equipment to unearth the detritus of civilizations past and present. Archaeologists and preservationists tend to view diggers with suspicion, fearing that they’ll damage historical sites and possibly make off with artifacts that should be in museums. But diggers tend to see themselves as homespun scholars, who despite a lack of credentials have a genuine, passionate interest in resurrecting insightful traces of history, and are willing to put in the time and effort to locate it and dig it up.
Charles Ewen, an archaeology professor at East Carolina University and president-elect of the Society for Historical Archaeology, sees the conflict as a basic one. “The biggest point that separates the [metal-detecting] collector from the archaeologist is context,” he explains. “To us, it’s not what you find, it’s what you can find out.” Jeffrey Altschul, who recently was elected to head another major organization, the Society for American Archaeology, warns that when metal detector users get a hit, pretty soon, a site is turned into “a prairie dog town of holes.” As he and other professionals see it, “there’s a potential to destroy information.”
Metal-detecting enthusiasts think they’ve gotten a bad rap. “We are not all old men in black socks and sandals on the beaches of Florida, or looters and/or grave robbers,” says Montanan Tim Saylor, who along with George Wyant stars in the National Geographic Channel series Diggers. The object of the hobby isn’t to find riches, he explains. “We always go out looking for old coins because that is our favorite thing to find, but it’s always the other weird items that come out of the ground—guns, rings, unique jewelry, tools, and so on—that are the most interesting and surprising.”
“Unfortunately, the archaeological community, who we have always tried to work with, has really cast a bad light on metal detecting,” Butch Holcombe, publisher of American Digger magazine, told a newspaper interviewer recently. “They’ve called us ‘looters’ and ‘pot hunters’ and ‘thieves of history.’ And all of that is not so.”
As a recent Wired article on metal detecting detailed, enthusiasts often harvest and amass vast hordes of discarded or lost items, ranging from contemporary trash—broken watches, children’s lost Matchbox cars, medallions from cremations—to intriguing and sometimes valuable historical relics. Detector-wielding hobbyists who comb San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, have pulled up brass buttons and even gold pieces dating back to the city’s infamous 1906 Earthquake, items left behind by the quarter-million or so people who were temporarily housed in shelters in the park after their homes were destroyed by the quake.
But occasionally, such amateur scavengers also manage to make significant archaeological discoveries, or uncover finds worth princely sums. In northern England last year, a metal-detecting buff named Darren Webster was exploring a field near his home during a lunch break and unearthed a lead container filled with silver coins and jewelry that dated back to the Viking rulers of the region, more than 1,000 years ago. The discovery was hailed by the British Museum as one of the most important Viking archaeological finds ever.
After the metal detector was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 1800s, it didn’t take long for treasure hunters to start using the technology to search for valuable stuff in the ground. But the hobby of metal detecting seems to have mushroomed in popularity after World War II, when Kellyco, a leading supplier of metal-detecting gear, began marketing devices based upon military gear used to sweep minefields.
Old-school diggers didn’t have any qualms about venturing onto major historic sites such as Gettysburg, a practice that’s now illegal under federal law. A 1960 Associated Press story describes the exploits of “relic hunter” N.E. Warinner, who made a name for himself by using a metal detector to search old Civil War battlefields for cannon balls, uniform buttons and buckles, swords, pistols and other artifacts.
In recent years, perhaps spurred by rising gold prices, amateur treasure hunting seems to be gaining in popularity. One retailer, Kellyco. Inc. of Winter Springs, FL, has seen sales rise by 63 percent since 2005.
"No other hobby I can think of has a return like this," Ed Burke, vice president of the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archaeology Clubs, recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You can pay $800 for a metal detector and make up the return on it the first time, if you're lucky."
Metal-detecting buff Saylor is a bit more of a realist. “By the time you pay for gas, food, batteries, and gear for a hunt, you almost always lose money that day,” he admits. “If you are in it for the cash, then you should find another hobby or else you are bound to be disappointed.” To Saylor, the payoff is finding a lost piece of the past, such as a 1933 World’s Fair token—even if that item is only worth a few dollars on eBay.
But the stereotype of metal-detecting buffs as treasure hunters, uninterested in history, helps explain why they aren’t especially popular with professional archaeologists.
“The real importance of an archaeological site is context—not just the artifacts themselves, but where they are found,” explains Utah-based archaeologist Mike Polk. “That’s what helps give us the story of what was going on at that site long ago. When you use a metal detector to find concentrations of artifacts, and then you excavate with a shovel in a non-controlled way—well, they may be well-intentioned, but they have great potential to destroy a site.”
Whether or not that is a fair characterization of the pastime, metal-detecting enthusiasts nevertheless have tried to clean up their image. The Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs, a U.S. organization that strives to protect the pastime from being regulated out of existence, has created a code of ethics that it requires members to follow. Some key points: Enthusiasts should be careful to check local, state and federal laws before searching in an area, and search on private property only with the owner’s permission. Additionally, they should be careful to not to harm wildlife or natural resources at a site, and be careful to refill all holes and dispose of any trash that they find in an area.
In another positive development, archaeologists have started trying to work with metal-detecting buffs, rather than against them. A few years ago, when archaeologists took a fresh look at Little Bighorn in Montana, the site of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 1876 defeat by the Sioux, they recruited amateurs with metal detectors to form a column and sweep the entire battlefield. But instead of stopping to dig when they heard a beep, the hobbyists left the objects in place and marked them with flags, which allowed archaeologists to take careful notes on each artifact’s orientation and declination. That teamwork yielded data that enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the actual sequence of events in the battle and disprove the legends that arose, according to Ewen.
Ewen is eager to see more such cooperation. “Most of the [metal-detecting hobbyists] want to help,” he says. “They’re interested in the past. Our job is to channel that interest in a constructive way.”
Metal-detecting buffs also help their hobby’s image when they offer their services to help people find lost items such as wedding rings. In August, for example, after a Pittsburgh woman named Kristen Sweitzer lost her engagement and wedding rings in the surf near a Florida resort, the day was saved by a local digger, Paul Rodinsky, who normally spends his time scouring local beaches for pre-Civil War buttons, old coins, and other antique curiosities. Rodinsky showed up with his special waterproof metal detector, and quickly located the woman’s jewelry—valued at $10,000—in the wet sand. When Rodinsky presented Sweitzer with the rings, she tried to pay him a reward, but he declined. “You reap what you sow,” he explained to a newspaper interviewer.
In short: There are bad diggers and there are good diggers. There are bad archaeologists and there are good archaeologists. There are bad governments and there are good governments. There are bad fishermen who catch fish below the measures defined for each species, which catch fish in breeding seasons and there are good fishermen, who respect the right times to go fishing, do not capture (and take home) fish below the measure... So! The logical solution would be laws that applied on the individual and not on the class, just like the fishing regulations, after all, if this works well with fish, should work with metals too. The rest is simple IGNORANCE AND PREJUDICE. And for me, the only difference between a good fishing and a good metal detecting is where each is practiced, one in the water, the other in the ground. And I love them both and I also love NatGeo and Diggers! "The items they find, the sites they visit and their interaction with each other are not only very entertaining but interesting and educational as well." This is especially true, Grace. ;)
The biggest thieves of archaeological finds are government paid archaeologists. Check their collections--always massive.
I have to say, my husband is the real Nat Geo fan in our home, but I just LOVE "Diggers". I've read some very negative comments from some who believe that they, the "diggers", are being irresponsible in their preservation of our historic sites/artifacts. It seems to me that the diggers have actually discovered some previously unknown sites and have gone above and beyond to preserve the integrity of those sites. They seem to have a true passion and respect for our nations history and therefore do not, in any way, shape, or form wish to "loot". I had also read that Nat Geo had not ordered any additional episodes. I so hope that is not the case. The items they find, the sites they visit and their interaction with each other are not only very entertaining but interesting and educational as well. And if, for whatever reason, Nat Geo does not pick up additional episodes, I hope someone else will as I'm hooked and will follow right along.
Too bad archeologists don't work with us instead of blathering about how we are all thieves. The truth is that most of us carry rulers, GPS and cameras for documenting and marking historic finds and reporting them. The truth is that archeologists don't like the competition because they're insecure.
@Seth Shotwell "The truth is that archeologists don't like the competition because they're insecure.":Insecure about what? That sounds something like a child would say. Obviously, you don't know many archaeologists nor do you understand what professional archaeologists do. There is no "competition", archaeologists do not make money selling the artifacts they find, they usually work for Cultural Resource Management companies who are contracted by state and federal agencies to insure that archeological sites will not be damaged by construction projects such as.pipelines, highways, etc..The monetary value of artifacts is not important but what that artifact can tell us about the people who lived at the site is. Contrary to what is portrayed in movies, archaeologists do not stop construction on work sites for excessive periods of time if at all and more often than not, work carries on at other areas of a project while the archaeologists are testing the site. Archaeologists have no problem with amateur archaeologists and work with them quite often. If the amateurs work alone that is fine also, as long as they properly record their findings with maps, photos, notes, etc. and then report their findings to their regional archaeologist.If you or any one else out there is interested in learning proper archeological excavation and recordation techniques, contact your state's regional archaeologist or, University Anthropology Department. Believe me, your help would be greatly appreciated.
We should pass laws where nothing can be built, homes, schools, shopping centers, etc... until a team of certified archaeologists spend two or more years checking the land for important artifacts. Close all beaches and farms to avoid stepping on a piece of history. Close all roads and railways until the archaeologists can remove the pavement and rails to check for artifacts. I think we should start with New York city. They can remove the building and streets to discover colonial era or native american items buried beneath the city.
@ric Cro I don't know why you seem to be so disdainful of archaeologists but it seems apparent that you lack understanding of when and why laws require an archeological excavation. Only construction projects that require Federal funding are required to have archaeological testing done. If a Federally funded project is built in an area already disturbed by parking lots, streets, etc., archaeological testing is usually not necessary because if a site is present, its context is disturbed and it will not provide any information about a site's inhabitants.
OK, well...I agree with the code of ethics, thats just common human decency...but I am disturbed at the view of detectorists by the government, insitutional education entities museaums and their ilk....it was public land....and the notion that only those thatve subjected themselves to a decade or whatever of institutional education have the right to wield a shovel on public lands disturbs me...I get that archeologists have their concerns about history being damaged without being documented or whatever, but all these laws against treasure hunting are anal and repressive...the idea that whatever is under the ground should stay there for the next 50000 years or however long it takes an accredited(sp) scientist to discover it, instead of being found by a detectorist who is following his lifes passion is just wrong...I am not advocating people stealing the national treasure type items, but at some point governments have gotten out of hand in the area of discovered item ownership...I laugh sadly when I see treasures discovered in the seas by dilligent hunters being awarded to modern day governments of countries that stole the gold and jewels from natives in the most heinious fashion centuries ago, raping the lands of the indigenous people so thay could fund more colonization and theft in other parts of the world, the modern governments should be ashamed to accept a single dollar worth of these discoveries
Good point on government claims Indy! The Atocha is a great example. Spain claims possession of something they committed genocide to steal 500 years ago. How do they sleep at night ... besides on a bed stuffed with the gold of a murdered race of people?
@Indiana Jones It all started with the National Parks Service and the restriction of volcanic and other gem producing areas. Now they use watersheds to restrict gold and platinum prospecting,. Every place in this country known to produce valuable artifacts or resources has been "claimed" by the government. That's why private property is so crucial.