The Value of Context in Historical Archaeology

In business, people often say the three most important things to remember are 1) location, 2)location, 3) location.

If you were to replace the word “business” above with the word “archaeology, then the three most important things become 1) context, 2) context, 3) context.

If ever a metal detectorist wondered why archaeologists get variously worked up about them, they need only learn the value of context in the archaeological process to begin to understand it. Some archaeologists tolerate the metal detector enthusiast, others will have utter disdain for him. I fall somewhere in the middle I suppose.

I know of some metal detectorists that take great pride in what they do, appear to document their finds with some care, and treat land owners with great respect. And they can often provide good information and even valuable participation in large projects where many people with metal detectors is useful.

Douglas Scott’s work with metal detectorists at Little Bighorn is a great example of metal detectorists and archaeologists working together. In a typical survey day for the battle field, volunteers, experts in metal detector use, lined up and walked transects about 5 meters apart, marking their hits with pin flags. Behind them, a separate crew recovered the artifacts but not before carefully documenting the precise x, y, and z coordinates to near centimeter accuracy.

In this way, Scott and his team were able to apply forensic analyses to the artifacts, knowing precisely where each was found on the battlefield. They were able to associate individual guns to cartridges they found and trace their movements across the battlefield. In the words of Scott:

We can definitely see that the Native American warriors outnumbered Custer’s command at least 7 to 1 and outgunned them 2 to 1 — they outfought Custer. They used the landscape as a more effective means of protection and cover.

This couldn’t have been done without the metal detectors and their operators. Folks often referred to as “diggers” by the archaeological community.

But it’s also important to note that the metal detectorists weren’t simply turned loose on this National Park land. Their efforts were carefully supervised and the recovery of artifacts done with great care. Below is a photograph that shows a metal detector survey at the former location of an African American church in Kentucky. This particular church has great significance to the National Forest since it appears that it belonged to a Freedmen community in a post-Civil War period.

Crew of archaeologists doing a metal detector survey.

Notice the pin flags marking the location of “hits” and the crew member in the middle with the Trimble GPS. Capturing the coordinates of the artifact is crucial to building context. Once the artifacts are collected, they’re labeled with a number on the pin flag so it can be correlated to the location. And the recovery isn’t simply for the artifact itself. Each flag is treated like a mini-shovel test pit: the soil screened and all artifacts associated with it bagged and tagged.

We’re looking for context. That bit of charcoal. Tiny pieces of glass or ceramic–broken but however small. Fragments of brick. Unusual stains in the soil. Out of place stratigraphy. And anything else that might not be metallic. These features and artifacts are all a part of the overall context.

On my Forest is a Civil War site so, as you can imagine, we occasionally get people looking for “relics.” Probably more than we want to think about. A few years back, a pair of gentlemen were caught with their metal detectors in the Fort Henry area along with a bag of their “loot,” some of which is in the video below. As you look at the video, it’s easy to realize that there is a lot we can know about these artifacts (several bullets and one button). But for all we can discern about caliber, possible weapon types, maybe what uniform once wore the button, there is so much that is completely and utterly gone from us. We can no longer associate these artifacts to non-metallic artifacts or features in the ground. We can never really know precisely where these artifacts came from beyond perhaps a 5-10 mile square area.

Also, did you see the gashes or cuts that three of these soft, lead bullets have? Those were done by the metal detectorists as they dug for their “relics.”

I could go on, but I’ll leave it here for possible discussion. I’m not completely against metal detecting. Some of my archaeologist friends have convinced me to maintain an open mind over the years. As a teen, I owned a couple and dreamed of finding outlaw loot with them when I lived in West Texas (I did find a 17-jewel Seiko watch once). But now, as an archaeologist, I’m also not thrilled with the potential for losing valuable data. And losing context.

About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. Excellent. I hope that at least a subset of we detectorists can be promoted from ‘tolerated’ to ‘appreciated’ with time, trust and demonstrated ability to do good work.

    In a recent presentation, I said …”saving bags of bullets is not saving history, it’s saving metal.” I admit that early in my metal detecting work at civil war sites I did put multiple finds in a single bag – meaning the context was only usually recorded to a part of a field. Now, every item I dig is recorded to +/- 1.5-2 meters with survey grade GPS. When more accuracy is possible in the field, I’ll use it.

    Most detectorists don’t want to hear what I have to say, but I will keep saying it. A very valid question for many: Where do we put the data? The problem is that on private property in the US, there’s no clearinghouse for privately collected data not part of a formal site definition. Any data store created would have to have levels of access to protect privacy but ensure access by scholars. Many simply do not have the necessary computer skills to take GPS data and create a useful map or artifacts database. And recent data breaches have really impacted the public’s trust of cloud-based data.

    My pleas are to at least capture horizontal provenance (any GPS device they have,) depth (esp on non-plowed areas) and if they can, make a map on acid free paper in a durable cover titled “artifact map for future Archaeology” for the property owner to keep with the land title/deed. I welcome other ideas.

    [this is duplicated from comment on facebook for non-facebook readers]

  2. I belong to a metal detecting club in Northeast Alabama. We are well versed in marking with flags and recording GPS coordinates. We’ve been on numerous archaeological digs with state, and county personnel.

    In my experience, most detectorists are very keen on recording where their finds are, especially if the finds are more than bottle caps and car parts. But, most of our club members hunt city parks, old vacant lots, homesteads, and farmers fields.

    The main disconnect between detectorists and archaeologists is the old “looting our cultural heritage”. Although digging a 1998 quarter from the tot lot at the city park is not considered a major find, a lot of my friends who have dug up nice civil war, 1812, or revolutionary war relics couldn’t catch the attention of even a bored archaeologist. I talked to a grad student at the university of Alabama a few years ago that said they had shelves, with boxes, of bags, of relics that were collected 20-30-60-80 years ago… that nobody has really looked through.

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