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.
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.