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    I would love your input, your debates and to become a bit better friends with you all.

14 thoughts on “Metal Detecting and Archaeological Advocacy – Some Observations and Ideas from a Detectorist

  1. George Myers says:

    I’ve seen the fine line between archeology and metal detecting. On a number of EPA sites I’ve used and assisted magnetometer surveys, one on the periphery, marsh and shoreline of the West Point Foundry Historic Site (see “Scenic Hudson”) in Foundry Cove and by Constitution Island (currently being negotiated by NY Senator Schumer to be turned from the military academy, across the Hudson River, to the National Park Service) in the archaeology investigation to assist the planning of the Marathon Battery National Priority Superfund site. It used a usually ship-based system, and anomalies on the staked grid were dug up and tested. Two large empty shells were found and EOD cleared, but not by the survey, which I’d learned since was to perhaps find a large number of shells an informant once had seen. Another site used a hand-held cesium proton magnetometer which could be triggered at regular gridded by time intervals in a palmtop Windows computer or operator triggered at irregular or regular intervals so marked carried with batteries in a harness. It, I believe, had been used to find a large kiln site of ceramic (celadon) production in SE Asia linked to a nearby shipwreck, by Australian archaeologists, shown on tlevision. It was used in Saratoga Springs, NY to locate a previous “city gas” factory site remains, as part of a “coal tar” remediation across Excelsior Ave. from “Old Red Spring”. Using software to create contours of the data led to further testing and description of the site, its surviving brick gasholder apparently moved a short distance away form the remediation and today on the US National Register. Very few survived in the US. 12? Both of these projects and others were done from about 1989-1994.

    Few years before I worked with a specialist, Bruce Bevan in remote-sensing, and before he might use a number of tools, soil resistivity, magnetic resonance, magnetometer and ground-penetrating radar, I see he has gone over the area with a metal detector to see what might be nearby and if a wire fence etc., note its location. We then found a small buried lime-kiln in the Hudson River bank in Bowdoin Park, once a modest summer home of J. P. Morgan and perhaps the earliest settlement in NY’s Dutchess county, where the ferry used to cross the river for Marlboro, NY and a small church and cemetery had once been, now the last federally funded sewerage treatment plant. I think metal detectors are a tool we should use more often as part of the walkover and perhaps later to assure we’ve seen what we could.

  2. Scott Clark says:

    Fascinating! I thoroughly enjoy looking at the ways that technologies like this are applied to archaeology. Being a technologist myself (my degrees and careers are Computer Science oriented) I am frequently thinking about it. I admit to knowing little about some of the “higher end” technologies for archaeology – but your reply definitely has lengthened my reading list.

  3. Serra Head says:

    I’m a bit torn here, I can see some of the points made here, but as Mr. Myers above touches on, metal detecting isn’t as useful on a site as one might think. I know that Mr. Myers argues for it, I am referring to his mention of the Magnetometer and other geophysical techniques. The technology we use in the field is moving beyond metal detector and proving data a metal detector never could.

    That being said, I understand that there are lots of folks how don’t want to give up their ‘right’ to go and look for treasure, and I understand that there is a draw to that. I do a lot of survey in my job and finding things is a whole lot more fun than not finding things. The major difference is, and Mr. Clark does mention this, the legality and documentation of objects found.

    We can all agree that Diggers et al is an atrocity, and it’s good to see that Detectorists community seems to feel the same way. That makes me a feel a lot better about things, still, I can’t get past the itchy feeling the idea of having unsupervised Detectorists wandering around potential and known sites, digging up whatever they want, gives me.

    Anyway, you make some very good points here, and I’d love to see this become a bigger conversations, if only so I could learn a few things about what you do.

  4. Scott Clark says:

    Thank you for the reply.

    Leading from yours and Mr. Myer’s points about detecting’s limited utility / reach on many sites, I’ve often wondered what percentage of information is actually lost to even the most thorough detecting activity? If most of the cultural layer is untouched by detecting, are we really hurting the provenance in a statistically significant way? Could the “costs” to site provenance actually be offset by the data collection (“scouting”) resource we might offer? What about the public relations considerations to Archaeology (Headline: “Archaeologists and detectorists discover unknown skirmish site, research to commence soon”) which might, indirectly lead to improved public support, funding, etc.

    Why would a detecting enthusiast comply – choosing to participate rather than to quietly pocket the site’s location and all the booty? Some would never consider it, but I hope a growing number might if offered some credit for their contribution (rather than an op/ed scolding.) (cite: Folly Island Site contributions from Robert Bohrn / Eric Croen, which lead to a Kentucky Colonel award by our Governor.) Such recognition might appeal to the patriotism, love of heritage and, I’ll say it, vanity that appeals to a new generation of amateurs. Could a certification program where trained detectorists might be associated with a local Anthropology department or Heritage Council appeal to this group? It sure would appeal to me! But I’m one of those new kids.

    I seem to be all of the the place with ideas, I know. But I think that finding the adjacent possibilities requires a bit of imagination and inquiry.

  5. Dick Stout says:

    “if only so I could learn a few things about what you do…”

    And therein lies the problem. Where does this understanding start and who initiates it? The option of course is to continue status quo, and that really accomplishes nothing IMO.

  6. Scott Clark says:

    Dick you are right. I don’t want to eliminate the enjoyment that we detectorists gain from our activities – I would just like to see it legitimized for those willing to publically build the story of our heritage.

    I remember the venomous onslaught by Archaeologists when KY SB105 was being considered in State Legislator. Some of the arguments were really over the top – putting us all in the same bucket as grave diggers and referring (for lack of more recent examples?) site destruction by relic hunters in the 1980s! But we all knew that bill was too broad – but the vitriol brought to bear against it was unexpected and disappointing. One public argument even argued against our access to public lands on the basis that detectorists might steal prehistoric mammoth bones (it was pointed out that none of us yet had a “marrow” setting on our metal detectors.)

    It was not until I began to get to know more Archaeologists in person, as well as participate on some digs, did I realize that there was an entirely new dimension to metal detecting which was intellectually even more satisfying than the random relic hunt. I have truly enjoyed my work with Archaeologists in KY and hope to do much more of it in the near future. And in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy metal detecting on my own, on private land, collecting taking notes and GPS info, discussing my finds informally with my Archaeology friends.

  7. Paul Barford says:

    I agree, this status quo cannot and should not prevail. Back in the old days getting such understanding would mean going along to metal detecting club meetings, which is what some archaeologists in the UK still do.

    Today the internet and the existence of a plethora of discussion forums, blogs and websites gives the opportunity to hear directly from those involved just what artefact hunters do, think and say. There is surely no better way to gain an understanding of who artefact hunters are, what they aim to get out of their collecting, their attitudes to conservation, how serious they are as a whole about the declarations they make (and others make on their behalf), degree of adherence to and understanding of agreed codes of practice, what they consider responsible behaviour, what they do with the objects they find, what they understand of the notions of context and conservation, and so on.

    Logging on to their candid discussions of these and other topics online is therefore a fundamental source of information on which the reader can gain some understanding of what is going on and what the problems are. Mr Stout’s own blog , for example, together with his co-author UK detectorist John Howland, set new standards in the public debate. Please visit it and have a look around at the timbre of debate there.

    I would say resources like this (and there are many more like this) give a truer picture of what actually goes on in the broader detecting community that the declarative statements of the few that see the need to work together towards a conservation-based approach such as Scott Clark.

  8. Scott Clark says:

    Thank you Paul. I appreciate the reply.

    Is the forum chatter or flame wars representative of detectorists’ attitudes in the USA? I’m not convinced. I know that I feel awkward when the form threads or blog posts take on a truck-stop timbre, or where members spew forth evidence they haven’t a clue what archaeology is about (nor do they want to learn, damn it.) And I’m not alone. Along the way I’ve met many others with these sensibilities.

    We just don’t fit in very well I guess – and this prevents me from participating in forums, clubs and rallies. I’d prefer working with a university on a survey or exploring the woods alone with my notebook, camera and detector – looking forward to sharing and publishing my finds as much as the discovery itself.

    A professional’s only approach to every historic site is impractical and wasteful (and probably corrosive to Archaeology’s PR efforts – so how can amateurs contribute in an acceptable fashion – even at lower resolution? Call me idealist if you wish, but I think we only need to apply some critical thinking over a pint or two to work out a solution here.

  9. Dick Stout says:

    Well now that Mr. Barford has entered into this conversation I will depart. His goal is and always has been kill the metal detecting pastime, and if you doubt me please subscribe to his blog, and see how many posts are devoted to “tekkies” who hoik things out of the ground.

    To continue any dialogue with this individual is a waste of time. Perhaps he might even share his credentials….?

  10. Mandy Ranslow says:

    I have to be completely honest, back in 2009 I was really uncomfortable with the idea of partnering with metal detectorists and using metal detectors on an archaeological project. This is while I was working at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut, USA who had recently received a National Park Service grant for the Battlefields of the Pequot War project (

    I have since moved on to another job (not because of metal detecting), and I have been following the progress of the project through friends still working on it. I have come to realize the great help that metal detecting can be on a project where archaeologists are trying to find 17th century artifacts related to small skirmishes and larger battles. The Pequot Museum staff have partnered with the Yankee Territory Coinshooters who have invaluable expertise and knowledge in finding and identifying artifacts. The archaeologists provide them with an opportunity to contribute to a large research project, for which they receive acknowledgement ( In a project like this the partnership of archaeologists and metal detectorists has been mutually beneficial.

  11. Scott Clark says:

    Kudos on taking the step to work with the detecting group…

    I hope that others consider this kind of cooperation whenever detector equipment and (often extensive) skills might be helpful. And you may find that these lifetime hobbyists have more to offer than simply technical skills – some have keen abilities in site location, artifact identification and location interpretation. We certainly will learn a lot from Archaeology community in these projects. I also hope that new ways of cooperating be explored as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this post

    PS: Dr. Matt Reeves and I wrote about a similar cooperative effort happening at Montpelier you might enjoy reading about (

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