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Responsible Metal Detecting

Tim Saylor and George Wyant detecting at the 5 Mile Bar & Grill location in Butte, MT.

Tim Saylor and George Wyant walk out to the beach to start detecting. (View larger version)

Photograph by National Geographic Channel

By Patrick J. Kiger


Metal-detecting buffs often have an uneasy relationship with the archaeologists and public officials who’ve banned them from parks and other public spaces. But both enthusiasts and detractors say that if you’re going to take up the hobby, you should practice it in an ethical manner that avoids harm to our historical legacy and environment—and possibly even does some good. Here are some key principles, gleaned from both metal detecting organizations’ codes of ethics and recommendations from archaeologists.

  • Obey the law. Make sure that you’re familiar with the federal, state and local regulations about metal detecting that cover the area where you’d like to search.A state’s Archaeologist’s Office or its Department of Historical Resources and Preservation are a good place to begin. If the land is federally owned, you can contact the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

  • Get permission. Get an okay from the owner of a property—written, preferably—before you conduct a search.

  • Leave a site in the same shape that you found it. Refill any holes that you dig, and try not to needlessly destroy plant life. Don’t leave behind any trash, and dispose of any refuse from other people that you find. And make sure that you close the gate on the way out.

  • Try to pick low-risk places to search.  Archaeologists recommend beaches, where you’re not likely to disturb a site that’s of serious archaeological value.

  • Recognize that local communities have a right to their heritage. As archaeologist Jeffrey Altschul explains, what may seem like an interesting historical curiosity with little monetary worth to you may be a priceless piece of history to others. “It’s not only a civil war bullet or a 19th Century saw blade,” he says. “To the community where you found it, it could be something that belonged to one of their founders.”

  • Resist the urge to sell stuff that you find on eBay. “As far as we’re concerned, one of the worst things you can do is sell artifacts,” explains archaeologist Charles Ewen. “It’s a deal breaker.” Instead of being hidden away in collectors’ vaults, archaeologists want artifacts to be accessible to scholars and visible to the public.

  • If you find items lost by a landowner or some other identifiable person, return them. “Before you hunt, ask them if there is anything they might have lost that you could help them find,” advise metal-detecting buffs Tim Saylor and George Wyant, the stars of Diggers, on their website. “It's just one more way to be helpful to your neighbors, and you will likely be invited back with such behavior.”

  • Help further the cause of archaeology. Join local and/or state archaeological and historical organizations, and volunteer to help researchers when you can. They’re increasingly open to getting help from metal-detecting buffs. You also may be able to get training from them, or simply absorb knowledge, that will enhance your own appreciation and enjoyment of searching for remnants of the past. “Metal detecting actually can be a very useful tool to archaeology,” explains archaeologist Polk. “But it has to be used in a very specific way,” i.e. as part of a carefully planned scientific investigation.

John Haynes
John Haynes

Amateurs can forget about metal detecting on federal lands.  This is forbidden by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA).  The Advisory Council for Historic Preservation is not involved with this, it is the Federal Land Manager for the property.  Any search for artifacts on federal lands other than that carried out by the land managing agency or their contractors requires an ARPA permit.  These are issued by the land managing agency, signed by the federal land manager.  Requirements are that the survey or excavation is supervised by a professional archaeologist, who submits a research design.  There is usually an archaeologist on staff who reviews the application.  If an amateur has an interest in a site on federal land, the only way to be in on a dig is to be part of a project led by a professional.  Even with an ARPA permit, the finds always remain the property of the federal government.  ARPA violations can be punished by civil actions initiated by the federal land manager through the US attorney (metal detectors and vehicles can be seized) , or treated as a criminal violation by federal law enforcement (fines, prison time).  ARPA violations are felonies if damages exceed $5000.  This is calculated on the equivalent cost of an archaeological excavation.  Since the threshold amount has not been changed since the enactment of the law in 1979, a hole a foot and a half wide and a foot deep can cross the felony threshold.  Many states, Virginia for example, have laws like ARPA for state owned or controlled lands.

David Hanning
David Hanning

when I can afford to I am getting a detector and go detecting doing it may help me lose a lot of whight and it will be fun

Todd Pierce
Todd Pierce

Great fun watching these friends enjoy the hunt and the discovery. I just came home from 3 years in Italy with the Navy and my adventures led me to WWII battlefields in Cassino, Pantano Mountain, Landing zones in Holland and a 4 day hike through the Hurtgen Forrest Germany where we lost 24,000 allied troops. Some of my artifacts made it to museums and some came home. What an adventure!Keep up the great work guys!

Ronald Sharer
Ronald Sharer

Really enjoy the show, and I like the section on your website that covers responsible metal detecting,  but there should be an announcement in every episode reminding everyone to recover your targets responsibly by filling your holes and picking up the trash, DON'T LEAVE A MESS !!!, all too often we come across holes that haven't been filled, we need to protect the hobby that we have fought so hard to enjoy, by lobbying government officials  who were ready to close parks and public lands because of careless detectorists.

A little help from Ringie and KG would go a long way.   Thanks