Don’t Let Metal Detecting Rallies Impact Detectorist / Archaeologist Cooperation

March 15, 2016 at 2:31 pm  •  Posted in Advocacy by



This is a response to the thoughtful protest post by Craig Swain about DIV (Digging in Virginia) metal detecting rally at “Ransack a Historic Site”  – I’m focusing more on the rallies in general than illegally hunting beyond their defined borders.

I have long wondered about the impact of metal detecting rallies like DIV – how do they impact archaeology and how do they impact perceptions of metal detectorists generally? I’ve been invited by dear friends and politely declined each time.  As I watch social media, and see the DIV finds, smiling faces and good times scroll by my screen, I do feel a bit of jealousy.   But I’ve just never felt good about the idea of such a massive rally on historic land – private or not.  I would have trouble looking my Archaeology friends in the eye after being part of it with a near absence of provenance capture.  I understand the problem clearly.  
Rallies, in many ways, an extreme example of what Archaeologists hate about the metal detecting hobby – destruction of contextual information en masse.  [see update below about Swedish rallies]

A detectorist and Archaeologist working side by side at Montpelier

Finding an acceptable approach to recording provenance is very difficult in a Rally environment, but I do have ideas – ideas that will become more and more realistic as some basic technology enters the market.  Rallies are about the fast-paced thrill of hearing, digging, holding and sharing.  I’ve spent years thinking about how to bridge the gap between the rigor of Archaeology and the fun of metal detecting.  We’ve Brainstormed ideas for using technology tools and added training on rapidly gathering provenance that are “better than nothing.”  

As a certified geek, I have high hopes that new field devices such as 2cm smartphone GPS   and simple, form-based site forms will facilitate better amateur data collection without as much perceived overhead.  I am constantly testing new ideas like this, but even at my “most efficient,” I still spend 30-50% of my time in the field gathering data while my metal detector sits patiently idle.  Tools aside, this takes a real commitment from the detectorists to enjoy their hobby differently – to find their thrill in contributing to a bigger dataset beyond what’s in their finds bag.

Official DIV 2014 Photo by Rick Martin via Touch the Past blog.

One impulsive thought would be to pair each metal detectorist with someone in charge of recording provenance, sort of like our metal detecting sessions at Montpelier.  I’m afraid this would be considered intolerable at a rally.   Participants have paid fees, scraped together precious vacation days and driven miles for this much anticipated weekend.  But asking them to spend 30-50% of their detecting time filling in forms or waiting for a dig-mate to do in-situ analysis is not what they had in mind.   Plus, I doubt any archaeologists would risk their reputation on such an endeavor –  who would sign their name to that dataset?  (Pace matters at DIV since an impressive display of artifacts is a great source of personal pride at the end-of-event exhibits. )

2016-03-22 11_09_29-Google Earth

Some of my data gathering (solo hunting) HandyGPS + Geotagged Images + ImageSetter results from Civil War Camp.  I spend over 1/3 of my time documenting everything.  A possible solution for Rallies?

I do have an idea that could work at Rallies – something like the HandyGPS  smartphone app allows simple geo-tagged images within the app with +/- 1-2 meter resolution.  In future phones that will be sub-meter.  It places them in a special phone folder that can easily be grabbed later.  If each participant stopped by a “phone station” where a USB cable was connected and a copy of the images was grabbed after the hunts, they could be merged using into a Google-Earth and GIS using GeoSetter – ready KML file very easily.  That resulting file could be made each year and provided as research data.  UPDATE: I recently updated to an external GPS receiver and my resolution is now +/-6ft regularly.

UPDATE:  Please see this post from ScienceBlogs by Martin Rundkvist in his Aardvarchaeology column.  A great refreshing read on how a rally was conducted in Sweden.  I had no idea it was so organized!!

Detectorists and Archaeologists

Ask detectorists to avoid such massive artifact removal events so that future archaeologists can properly excavate someday-maybe, and detectorists (correctly) refer to warehouses of boxed artifacts collecting dust in curation backlogs – never to be properly appreciated or accessed for any reason (until they’re eventually victim of a budget cut or accident.)  The question is …why not “save” the artifacts now by people who will appreciate them before they “rot in the ground?”  When would the finds they are recovering in the excavation in the future be available to the public in a professional-only scenario?  While I see a lot of cooperation happening on smaller, Archaeologist-lead projects – cooperation on rallies is likely impossible without some changes.

Archaeologists are sometimes bad about painting with broad brushes and citing extreme examples in their arguments for limitations on the hobby.   Referring to rallies as examples of typical detecting behavior when talking to legislators is surely tempting.  I hope this won’t happen.  I hope rallies do not poison the well for detecting rights and future cooperative projects.  We already see the potential of better training and more open-mindedness on individual projects around the country, and this is something I hope we can all rally around.  And I hope that my idea might have application in future rally situations.


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  1. Richard Williams / March 21, 2016 at 3:24 pm /

    Hi Scott. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I’ve been to several DIV events. My experiences do not match the charges made against the event. First of all, the boundaries where these hunts take place are ALWAYS clearly marked. Secondly, maps are made available to all participants showing the hunt boundaries. Thirdly, it is made abundantly clear at the beginning of these events that individuals who wander out of the designated areas are subject to: a trespassing charge, being escorted off the hunt, being banned from all future hunts. It’s not something that’s taken lightly, despite what others may say.

    Personally, I much prefer hunting alone or with just a few friends. However, these hunts are perfectly legal and are agreements between the private property owner and the hunt organizers. There have been some amazing recoveries at many of these hunts of items that may have never been discovered if we waited on an archaeological dig. These sites simply don’t lend themselves to that type of activity – for a whole host of reasons.

    • Scott Clark / March 21, 2016 at 7:40 pm /

      Thanks for the reply. I wouldn’t say you would need to wait on an archaeological dig – it’s unlikely that would happen in the next 25 years. But Archaeologists think on an infinite timeline. Digging 100 years from now is completely fine with them. But what could be great is recording +/- 1M GPS find information and having an ID for each item. This would be enough to publish a scatter chart .KML with detecting tracks and find photos for students & researchers. Soon, GPS on smartphones will be sub-meter… making this even more possible.

      But what we don’t want is for Archaeologists to point at rallies as the representative activity in getting more restrictive legislation on the books for our hobby than are there already. The metal detecting community does NOT have a voice in these matters because there is no national organization with a proven record of representing us. We don’t want our “hunting alone” activities to be negatively impacted by rallies. That’s why I wrote the post. I personally wish I could participate in them – they look like great fun. But I couldn’t walk away from it without any information without feeling like I’d done damage to history.

  2. Richard Williams / March 22, 2016 at 1:04 pm /

    Scott – I belong to 2 organizations that promote the ethical and responsible pursuit of the hobby:

    I’ve also, in the past, belonged to the Archeological Society of Virginia. I still receive their bulletins and publications, though I’ve let my membership lapse. I’ll likely renew again later this year.

    I agree with much of what you say here, I just wanted to provide another perspective on the DIV events since the concern/criticism is coming from folks who have never attended one. I’ve been to several. Another thing that the DIV organizers request is a list of all finds (with photos) so they can catalogue. Failing to provide that can result in not being allowed to attend future DIV events.

    I’ve also attended organized hunts sponsored by 2 other groups here in VA. The same type of rules and standards applied at those hunts as well.

    Thank you for allowing me to present another perspective.

    • Scott Clark / March 22, 2016 at 2:56 pm /

      I was aware of the request, and of course the (good) items are on display. WHen I asked about this to another regular attendee they said that no GPS coordinates were being recorded, and no grid was layed out. So the context is “in that field.” I guess that’s greater than zero. What I think is if all participants installed HandyGPS on their cell phones, they could use its built in geo-tag feature to capture photos of all finds in-situ. This would produce a folder of tagged images. That collection of a few thousand images could be then merged into a KML with GPS Place Application. That KML would become a rough map of finds. This prevents the searchers from having to do more than take a photo using the correct app. The geotargeted images are isolated in a special folder on the phone, so as to not become part of the standard gallery. It would add an big administrative layer to the dig, but would do much IMO to help. I will blog on how to use HandyGPS for generated KMLs from geotagged images soon.

    • Scott Clark / March 22, 2016 at 2:58 pm /

      I did!! Shared it on It’s amazing how often detectorists correct major aspects of world history… not sure they get enough credit!

  3. Richard Williams / March 22, 2016 at 4:32 pm /

    Scott: “It’s amazing how often detectorists correct major aspects of world history… not sure they get enough credit!”

    Very true. I’ve blogged quite a bit about it. How’s this for credit?

    “Without amateur souvenir collectors and relic hunters, the Smithsonian Institution might never have become the renowned network of museums that it is today. “You really can’t have a national museum,” says Bird, “until you have a nation of people collecting things, people who at least have that concept in their head—the collecting ideal. As low-tech and modest as some of these objects may be, they’re stand-ins for this larger purpose of national memory.” So what makes a good souvenir? According to Bird, each one is a “little bit of memory” that’s physically transportable. “Once you have it,” Bird says, “you can figuratively transport yourself back to that moment in time.” ~ Smithsonian curator William L. Bird

    And this:

    “Excavated Confederate used or manufactured objects are considered rarities. Such items are hard evidence of what material was actually in use on the field. The location of such discoveries can often give real corroboration to documentary evidence of the issue of a specific type of weapon. While Federal laws prohibiting excavation on Federal property are understandable, the loss of historic objects to natural deterioration is not an acceptable solution. This group of objects [above] is an excellent example of the diversity of Confederate arms and equipment carefully documented and preserved by dedicated relic hunters and preservationists.” ~ Professor William C. Davis from The Battlefields of the Civil War, page 250, image from page 134.

    I believe there are more who understand the value of relic hunters than maybe we realize. The critics seem to just be louder than the fans. I would add that the critics are often (though not always) misinformed as well.

  4. Thomas Schroeder / March 22, 2016 at 5:49 pm /

    I do not metal detect but I’ve known people who did, and knew a lot about how they detected and what they found. The consistent message I see from that archaeological community that I am exposed to regularly vilifies metal detecting and I appreciate your response to Craig Swain’s article that I found to be extremely out of touch with reality.

    Richard’s comment above about non-professional collections in the Smithsonian helps bear out that point. Non professionals finding artifacts can mean a lot of things. Sometimes, regrettably, it means that a group of amateurs loot from public land (the preferred description by the archaeological community), but most of them time it means they find small ticket items that no one else was looking for in the first place, and sometimes they find something that is very useful to history.

    It was very gracious of you to refer to Craig Swain’s article as “thoughtful” because I found it to be a delusional rant about folks that like to find old rifle rounds that are seasonally dragged around by a farmer’s till.

    Thank you.

  5. Thomas Schroeder / March 22, 2016 at 5:55 pm /

    P.S. I posted to following to Craig Swain’s comments. I used my name, as I did here, and my email. As of today, it was not included in his comments section. My comment regarded Craig Swain’s silly assertion that artifacts cease to be artifacts the instant that a non-professional removes them from “context” The “context” of the DIV hunt being a field farmed for 150 years:

    “Fantastic disingenuous claims like that make you look so radical that I can’t even believe that the illegal digging you allege actually took place in this instance. The fact is, artifacts do loose both monetary AND, more importantly, historical value when removed outside of reliable documentation. But they are still artifacts and, actually, everyone knows that. More importantly, the guy you talked to knows that and may have even sold his artifact in spite of you pretending to him that it was scrap metal.

    To combat illegal digging and the deterioration of our shared history we need real arguments not sensational fairy tales.”

    • Scott Clark / March 22, 2016 at 7:34 pm /

      Thomas . I hope all of your comments are now posted. If you want me to remove any duplication let me know.

    • Scott Clark / March 22, 2016 at 7:37 pm /

      I’m reading your comments and wondering if you have my name (Scott) and Craig’s reversed in your comments? I guess I’d like to be sure of who wrote a delusional rant!

      • Thomas Schroeder / March 23, 2016 at 9:53 pm /

        I did reverse the names. Sorry about that, thinks for correcting me.

        What I included above in quotation marks is what I posted to Craig Swain’s comments. He has chosen to not include my comments, which, as one can see, is just criticism and not abusive.

        Craig Swain is responsible for the delusional rant. He demonstrated his lunacy by pretending that artifacts are scrap when removed by non-professionals. To go on to say that “everybody knows” is one of the most outrageous disingenuous claims I have ever heard. In fact, since the opposite is actually true it results in looting. That is what everyone knows.

        • Scott Clark / March 23, 2016 at 11:42 pm /

          I corrected the names in your previous comments. If anything’s out of whack let me konw.

  6. Richard Williams / March 24, 2016 at 3:46 pm /

    Thanks Thomas. I would tend to agree with much of your summation. I, too, attempted to post comments in response to Craig’s post on his blog. I thought my comments, while disagreeing with his viewpoint, were respectful. He posted them, then deleted them. That does not, in my opinion, encourage dialogue to perhaps foster some mutual understanding and agreement where possible.

    The vast majority of relic hunters I know are responsible and keep decent records. And, most often, dig in areas that are highly unlikely to be of any interest to archeologists.

  7. Richard Williams / March 24, 2016 at 3:53 pm /

    One other observation that I should have mentioned in regards to publishing location details. Other than events like DIV, many landowners would NOT want information about finds on their property publicized with details about the location. Building those relationships to get permissions some times takes years and, while they are ok with one or two persons diggin’ an occasional relic, they are not ok being inundated by others, once the location is made public. And many of the locations are either small residential or working farms and the owners certainly would not be open to a full scale archeological dig. Some common sense is often missing, in my opinion, in some of these criticisms about relic hunters “ruining” potential archeological sites.

  8. Thomas Schroeder / March 25, 2016 at 7:25 pm /

    Thanks to you as well, Richard.

    I posted to Craig Swain site again on 3/24 for the second time. This time I did so very diplomatically in case my first was too strong and, again, he chose to not include it since it disagreed with his opinion.

    My Background: I field hunt native American artifacts. I accurately record the provenance, and do not buy or sell.

    I read about the recent DIV event and Scott Clark’s response via a post from the Ohio Archaeological Council (it seems that the post is being widely shared on facebook). The OAC regularly uses their influence to post negative comments about amateur activity. Destruction of sites concerns me greatly but I am also tired of the general contempt for amateurs I see being organized by professionals. Below is my response to the OAC. The Ohio event I reference regarded a similar metal detector event at an Ohio Civil War encampment in the Fall of 2015. I argued with the OAC at that time as well which, in turn, initiated a discussion about Little Big Horn that I reference in my response below:

    “It is very frustrating to consistently hear the message “professionals do proper work for the good of society but amateurs destroy our shared history and/or loot it”. I support conservation, curation, and education, but don’t support dishonest rhetoric that vilifies amateurs, in general, just to raise awareness that our shared history is exposed to people who sometimes ignorantly or selfishly destroy it. I think there is a better, more genuine way to convey the message of proper conservation.

    The OAC recently questioned whether or not a group of Ohio MDists made an effort to document what was found at a Civil War site. Not only were the finds and their locations documented, but that information was readily available. The OAC questioning the motives of the MDing club implied to your readers that their motives were unknown, which, in turn, stimulated conversations about the assumed reckless behavior at that event. If an event crosses a line or fails in curation efforts then please specify where they failed instead of questioning if they cared at all as though care must not have been a priority. If, however, the desire is to share awareness about the nature of amateur failures, in general, than do so without specifying particular groups or events unless they exhibit the failures.

    It seems to me that credible evidence for the following criteria should exist for a site to have archaeological value and therefore at risk for destruction:
    1) There is an expectation that knowledge can be gained about the events or culture associated with the site depending on the artifacts and soil composition/conditions yet to be discovered.
    2) There is an expectation that the site contains artifacts and/or soil composition associated with the event or culture being studied that is either undisturbed or that the existence of artifacts themselves, disturbed or not, is valuable.
    3) There is a desire to learn more about the events at the site or the culture of the people using the site. At the very least, there must be a curiosity about the site that supports the professional recovery costs.

    Each of these three criterion were met at the Little Big Horn site. I concede that some sites lie in a gray area. For instance, future discoveries may increase or decrease the expected value of a site and recovery costs and resources can change over time. Some sites of little interest today, may become more important tomorrow. However, some sites that produce artifacts fall significantly short of this criteria and therefore have little to no hope of future archaeological investment or interest.

    I do recognize the inherent fear of amateur activity even under the best intentions because of the “what ifs”. What if amateur activity becomes more popular and destruction increases? What if archaeologists are not yet aware of a site or its significance? What if the amateurs make honest but disastrous mistakes? What if the market value for artifacts provides motivation for looting? What if the provenance is poorly recorded and maintained? Etc. Believe me, I get that and it concerns me. But I refuse to jump on the band wagon that claims it is self evident that amateur activity is naturally destructive. Simply put, I am not dumb enough to fall for that propaganda.”

    • Scott Clark / March 26, 2016 at 12:43 pm /

      Thomas… lots of good thoughts here! I mentioned to Craig Swain that I was disappointed that yours and others responses to his post are not being allowed. Yours are thoughtful, not vile or ranty (like many detectorists insist on doing, sadly.)

      Thanks again.

    • Richard G. Williams, Jr. / March 26, 2016 at 6:01 pm /

      Thomas. We’re on the same page. Thanks! By the way, I’ve offered my services, free of charge, to any historic site/organization just to see what might be in the ground, with all the proper documentation taking place. I did have one local museum take me up on the offer and we found some CW period horse tack and a few early 20th century items as well. All was donated to the museum. They were most appreciative.

      Keep up the good work. Thanks to you Scott for allowing the discussion to go forth. Best to you sir.

  9. Thomas Schroeder / March 30, 2016 at 3:57 pm /

    Thanks Richard and Scott. Craig finally posted my comments and said the delay was due to vacation. Nothing has been added about the comments Richard said he left. I’ll let my conversation with Craig come to and end. I hope it will remains available. I have a copy of it.

    I have tried to be careful to communicate the importance of context and documentation when finding artifacts. However, my point is, and I actually believe that Craig recognizes it, that sometimes (usually) people buy artifacts just to have the artifact. They don’t need to know what 5′ by 5′ foot piece of land it came out of, at what depth, what organic matter was associated with it, etc. Craig went as far as to suggest that #2 pencils and aluminum cans might as well be claimed as valuable artifacts according to my belief that people do not require context.

    Anyone who is honest with the argument, will admit that artifacts are bought and sold constantly (and often regrettably) on the basis of the artifact itself.

    I have repeated that it is extremely important to educate folks about documentation and the loss of information when extracting artifacts without sufficient regard to context. But improving the current climate needs accomplished with real solutions and honest education. (BTW, sometimes sufficient context is very minimum. A Civil War round found in a corn field probably only requires location to fully provide all possible helpful context).

    Hypothetical: If I buy large collection of Civil War battlefield relics that reputedly came from Craig’s favorite battle field and donate them to Craig, I wonder what he would do with them. If he chooses to melt them down for scrap that demonstrates that he is out of touch with reality and the historical value of a collection that is probably Civil war and possibly from a known battle. If he instead displays the collection and openly relates the weak provenance it demonstrates that he is dishonest when refusing to recognize the intrinsic value items have in linking people to the past. My hypothetical money is on the latter.

  10. Richard Williams / April 6, 2016 at 6:05 pm /

    “Nothing has been added about the comments Richard said he left.”

    We had a very long email exchange, but he declined to post the comments. They were not nasty or anything, just disagreeable with his post.

    “artifacts are bought and sold constantly (and often regrettably) on the basis of the artifact itself.”

    Museums do so all the time and rarely display everything in their collection. I typically advise folks to put pieces on “permanent loan” for this very reason. (I serve on two small museum boards) If you give it to a museum outright, the item could end up being sold. Not that museums are doing anything under-handed, but they are sometimes faced with financial realities and priorities that must be dealt with.

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