Scott Clark lives in Lexington, KY has been metal detecting since aged 15, researching historical sites, participating in archaeological surveys and enjoying the physical, social and intellectual benefits of the hobby.

Metal Detecting and Archaeological Advocacy – Some Observations and Ideas from a Detectorist

Archaeologists and Metal Detectorists collaborating near Montpelier, The James Madison Estate.

Archaeologists and Metal Detectorists collaborating near Montpelier, The James Madison Estate.

I’ve been metal detecting as a hobby since age 15.  As my mastery of the equipment and abilities to identify and explore sites  improved, so did my respect for the Archaeological community.  I discovered the long-view of our own form of time-travel and now I spend a fair bit of time assisting Archaeologists and Preservationists with my skills.   I am hopeful that I will do this even more in the future.  Along the way, I’ve taken a keen interest in encouraging cooperation between the groups in the USA, considering the important work done by professionals while considering the rights of the hobbyists to enjoy their pastime on private property.

Because of this position,  I am asked my opinion about the disputes that emerge between groups and how we might address them.  I thought I would spend a few moments to give a broad, high-level view of some of my answers.  This perspective earns me few metal detecting friends.  I’m rarely invited to drinks and am sometimes chastised in the metal detecting forums for siding with the “archies” on many issues.   Some cannot understand why I hate the “American Diggers” reality show with such passion.

It seems to me that this list, or one like it, extended and massaged, could form the first steps in a meaningful dialogue to bring together those willing from both groups.   These questions come up again and again in forums, radio programs and at club meetings:

1. We metal detect at old homesteads “long forgotten” by Academia.  What value do archaeologists see in the ‘relics’ of say an 1840′s homestead in rural MO, or one of the well-documented, yet non-major/non-significant Civil War skirmish sites? And how to do they see this as valuable to society?

Broadly from my observations as a detectorist, Archaeologists think in terms of an infinite timeline.  Faced with limited resources, prioritization about how limited academic resources are used is required, but this does not mean giving up on a location to a free-for-all by relic hunters.   Many instead consider it a “professional” postponement for dozens perhaps hundreds of years – where future archaeologists, equipped with android field workers, nano-bot goo and virtual reality might glean new information from a common site and the information preserved by previous generations.

The detecting community shifts in their seats when asked to leave objects in the ground, especially as we watch 10-ton equipment deeply till soil in a field or bulldozers dig up sites for new homes.   It seems that with improved cooperation, a tag-team approach could save the data from these sites when Archaeologists are unable to commit resources and CRM firms are not required.   Objects and context do not last forever – and some sites (especially unprotected, private land) will clearly never be considered for research.  There must be a balancing act in there some where – a class system for sites perhaps, or a certification program for access.

folk-art-rest-detector2. What if detectorists become more rigorous and find a way to productively contribute to the data set?

Detectorists willing to gather find data on private property hunts may have a role to play in discovering / describing historic sites– not unlike archaeologists attending relic hunting club meetings to learn about member’s findings.  It may be easy to see detectorists’ motivations for the rush of a great find, but it’s hard for Archaeologists to respect this because it rarely involves building reliable data or preserving an object’s provenance.   Could we employ detectorists in some way to drive low-resolution data into a common pool?  Would it be helpful?

The enabling technologies for data collection are here now – smartphones, including those sealed from the elements, are now on the market.  Some metal detectors have built-in GPS and data paths to Google Earth.   And what about how to get detectorists excited about participating?  Why not appeal to friendly competition – not for most valuable objects, but for best data gathering?   Badges, rank or simple online mentions  (think Klout for Metal Detectorists) could incentivize the detecting community to work with Archaeology and add to the data sets even during weekend outings.

3. Why do Archaeologists want to let artifacts fade to dust ?

This is a common theme in the detectorist conversations – sometimes illustrated with barely-identifiable buttons dissolved with fertilizer or iron objects heavily damaged by plows or livestock.  Detectorists believe that artifacts will fade to dust if not retrieved and such retrieval is often delayed beyond the point of no return by lack of Archaeology resources.   I try to explain, often unsuccessfully, that while objects do degrade, they do so on a very long timescale, and by removing them from the soil, you frequently accelerate their destruction.  Archaeologists have a limited capacity to properly preserve and conserve objects properly, so the preference is often to leave the objects in the ground.  Detectorists see this as a race against time – will the objects be “saved” before the someday-maybe professional excavates the area?   You can see why this discussion gets heated.

team-lunch14. Why do Archaeologists not engage detectorists more often?

I would hope to hear from many of you with your own reasons.   I’m not saying that the professional community never reaches out – some do.   But the detecting community does not perceive it that way.

I think that some Archaeologists are fearful of the implications to their career which may come from engaging with metal detectorists.  It’s understandable, as Relic Hunters have (and do) decimated significant sites world-wide.  And now, (un) reality TV shows keep focus on the value of artifacts in “dollars and cents,” to keep audiences… despite the fact that most hobbyists rarely sell anything they find.  It is the detecting / relic hunting community’s burden to overcome this with increasingly trusted relations and productive partnerships.  But those can be hard to begin.

Secondly, there is an assumption, I believe from personal observation, that detectorists are often unable to comprehend scholarly hypothesis, methodology, interpretation and conclusions drawn up by professionals.  I say that, while there are a number of “slack jaws” in our ranks who scoff at quarter-inch screening and fiddly note-taking, there are also some highly enlightened historians with broad field and lab skills.  I have myself witnessed seasoned detectorists and the equipment they master transform the productivity of a survey site, bringing many new ideas with them.

5. How should Archaeologists engage with detectorists such that the relationship and outcome is co-beneficial?

I have found that when detectorists are actively involved in the hypothesis and planning for a given survey or research project, a lot of potential and productive energy is released.   The conversations shift from artifact-centric and “field technician” discussions to team-oriented, long-view and conclusion-centric collaborations.  I’ve heard a seasoned and skilled detectorists ask… “Why do they just want me to report beeps in my assigned grid?  Why don’t they use my 30 years of experience in locating and pinpointing sites?”

It’s worth mentioning that detectorists come from all walks of life.  They can be influential in the communities in which they live.  Furthermore, when Archaeologists participate with “ordinary citizens” and the process becomes less abstract and mysterious thanks to their advocacy,   public support for Archaeology may improve.   As the baby-boomer generation begins to explore their heritage, we may see an increase in interest which could be very good for community Archaeology and financial support.

Using smartphones for amateur dataset supplementation6. What technologies could help with Archaeology and Detectorist Community Cooperation?

As a new generation of digital-ready, social-media savvy metal detectorists and Archaeologists enter the ranks, interesting dynamics emerge.  The “digital relic hunt” has detectorists locating and photographing finds in-situ, then sharing them with online social networks.   This “Like” and “Share” gratification is similar to the relic-hunt-club meetings with wooden display cases spread around the room.  Might this be something we could tap?  The thrill of finds keeps their hobby interesting while actual objects are kept in context, bound for proper cataloging and preservation.    Even simply photographing objects found and sharing with trusted, local Archaeologists in a “cloud” storage folder might offer some interesting outcomes.

Some other discussions we’ve had include US-version of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which is tech-based and better suited for our property culture.  We discuss how improved GPS accuracy and shared databases in the cloud could provide a steady river of information to academia, while addressing the privacy concerns of property owners.  And field use of tablets, smartphone applications and more mean that the lowly relic hunter is more plugged in than ever to the online world.  It seems there should be a way for us to plug in to the Archaeology community, too!

Postscript:  Forgive any sloppiness above – I wrote this on the day of the #dayofarch project and in some haste. Thanks for allowing a non-academic enter your ranks and participate in this fun experiment.   If you would like to review some of my other views and my ever-evolving perspective on this issue, please subscribe to my blog at http://www.detecting.us.    I would love your input, your debates and to become a bit better friends with you all.