Day 3 and 4 flew by… and I barely had time to blog tonight. I had been looking forward to the Chicken Mountain wooded hunt during the MACP program. The Chicken Mountain site is one of the least surveyed areas thus far around Montpelier, so the potential for Madison-Era finds was quite real (as I soon found out!)
Chicken Mountain Offers Up Something Shiny
We gathered our gear at the base and spread out into the assigned Grids. Jeanne and I were again at the top of the mountain for the first half of the day and hitched a ride abord the 4-wheeler and worked downhill.
The hunting is challenging on the slopes but after quite a few high-tones in all metal (iron) I soon had a rather peculiar low tone on the E-Trac a 10-12. I told Jeanne that it was a special signal – it sounded like a gold signal or more likely a nickle. We’d not heard any other low-tones on the mountains other than the odd high-low signal from the shotgun shells.
After pinpointing, I stooped to bend and was amazed to find a late 1700s-1820s “Britannia” button beneath a root. Later, in the lab, I pulled the artifact bag and gave it a careful toothbrush clean to reveal a shiny, georgous (and rare) Madison-Era button (images below.)
Horseshoes, wedges, roundballs, 3-ringers and other finds were located and detectorists enjoyed the rigorous day. Some discovered clusters of nails and a jew harp which may indicate servants’ quarters.
The Chasm is Closing
Sitting around having lunch together in the woods was a great experience. We teased and joked about secretly turning on discrimination and hauling ass through the iron-ridden woods. The banter increased as the week went on and we all got to know each other.
The abundance of modern, extruded wire was a constant nag I know many of us would have loved to have “programmed-out” on the detector. After hearing it 20 times it was easy to tell when you’d found more of it, but we still dug every little 1/2″ piece. Grueling but necessary.
It makes me wonder though. To truly exploit the efficiency that modern detectors and operators have to offer, someday, archaeology team will need to trust the power of the machines with a skilled operator beyond the binary capability of “beep for metal” especially when trying to locate sites efficiently.
I understand that data integrity is paramount and trusting amateurs’ interpretation of signals is riskier than a “dig everything” edict. The archaeologists must have sufficient confidence in the data to report on it – sometimes a decision to do detailed work at a site means spending a substantial amount of a projects’ budget! In the end, sloppy work during the survey can be very expensive in several ways.
So… I’m learning a lot. A couple of significant observations come to mind.
Give detectorists some insights into what you’re trying to learn and they will get on board – rather quickly. We can be team players! Knowing the goals of establishing site boundaries on Chicken Mountain made a big difference in motivation and the feeling of teamwork. That iron object means something – even if it’s just slag. It defines the edges of a site – and then when we look at the site in aggregate (as I did later at the computer,) we can build a heatmap to possibly prove a hypothesis – or at least advance the state of knowledge. That leads to more detailed analysis, and eventually a reconstruction of history the entire world can absorb (e.g. rebuilt Montpelier to the Madison Era specifications.) The hard work leads to a new, accurate experience for visitors looking to explore the country’s past.
Archaeologists are passionate about not only the work they’re doing today, but what future archaeologists may want to do. Re-burying iron artifacts may sound crazy to detectorists until you recognize that these objects deteriorate as soon as they’re removed from the soil. And there is a backlog for proper conservation and interpretation. Archaeologists essentially think on an infinite timescale – just because they don’t do a dig on a site this year doesn’t mean it won’t be done 30 years later. They all feel a responsibility to the dataset beyond current activity to a level that we as detectorists simply don’t need to consider. So.. to archaeologists, just because an object isn’t being dug today doesn’t mean it’s being left to rot – rather – it’s being left in a stable environment until it can be properly recovered, conserved and interpreted. This is a very unsatisfying point of view to a relic hunter anxious to hold history in their hand on a weekend hunt after working hard all week at a job.
While there is much emerging cooperation and agreement, I can sense the tension between our two paths. I put this on the to-do list and feel confident that with the right people talking we’ll overcome these issues. Conversations sometimes get quiet when the detectorists are talking about finds and recent hunts… and it’s obvious that some archaeologists feel uncomfortable. It stands to reason. We did remove objects from their provenance, and that is, according to one archaeologist here, a “very sad thing.” Another frustration is that some of the more experienced detectorists feel we could help with efficiency more than we’re currently allowed. We would not be at 100%… but perhaps at a high enough reliability to meet the goals of the site survey? How would you know that you can rest your reputation on a detectorists’ comments about the yet-undug signal? There’s some distance to go for sure, but this week has been a big step forward.
Next: Day 4 – excavations of field slave quarters.
More posts on my Montpelier Experience here:
Thanks for documenting your “study vacation” at Montpelier. It is great to read about this from the detectorist perspective. We are proud to be blazing the trail to cooperation and understanding between archaeologists and metal detectorists. By the way, I agree about the nails, who knew they could be so interesting!
EVP/COO, Montpelier Foundation