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


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.


  1. Richard Williams March 21, 2016 /
    • Scott Clark March 21, 2016 /
  2. Richard Williams March 22, 2016 /
    • Scott Clark March 22, 2016 /
    • Scott Clark March 22, 2016 /
  3. Richard Williams March 22, 2016 /
  4. Thomas Schroeder March 22, 2016 /
  5. Thomas Schroeder March 22, 2016 /
    • Scott Clark March 22, 2016 /
    • Scott Clark March 22, 2016 /
      • Thomas Schroeder March 23, 2016 /
        • Scott Clark March 23, 2016 /
  6. Richard Williams March 24, 2016 /
  7. Richard Williams March 24, 2016 /
  8. Thomas Schroeder March 25, 2016 /
    • Scott Clark March 26, 2016 /
    • Richard G. Williams, Jr. March 26, 2016 /
  9. Thomas Schroeder March 30, 2016 /
  10. Richard Williams April 6, 2016 /