19 March 2012

Metal Detecting Post #68 - Relic Hunting & Reality

Fellow metal detectorist, relic hunter, and preservationist Tony Stevenson, recently posted a great piece on relic hunting and the ongoing debate/conflict between amateurs and professional archaeologists. Tony granted permission to repost his thoughts. I think it is a great piece and wanted to share it with my readers here. Below is the post with a link back to Tony's blog at the end of the post. If you have any interest whatsoever in this hobby, relic hunting, preserving local history or the ongoing debate surrounding these topics, please do take the time to read this post. It really is enlightening and very well balanced. I highly recommend the piece.

Detecting "Reality" Shows and the Amateur/Professional Debate
by Tony Stevenson

It seems the detecting forums and the *archeological communities are in a tizzy about a pair of detecting-themed “reality” shows hitting the airwaves this year.  The first of these, entitled “Diggers”, premiered yesterday on National Geographic as a two-episode pilot trial.  The second is a full 13 episode season called “American Digger”, set to air on Spike TV and starring former professional wrestler and long-time relic hunter Ric Savage.

As much as I hate to give publicity to the debate and potentially fuel the fire, I believe it is my responsibility as a detectorist, relic hunter, and blogger to provide my opinions on the controversy to my readership.  Let me first begin by saying that most of the opinions I have seen (from amateur detectorists, relic hunters, professional archeologists, and my own) are not particularly fond of the idea of these shows.  I should also mention that I don’t have cable television, so I will be commenting on hearsay from the premier episodes of Diggers and press releases of American Digger, but I will try to focus less on specifics of these shows than on the basic premise and potential problems they present.

It would seem the majority of the debate revolves around relic hunting, and not other hobby detecting pursuits such as jewelry hunting and coinshooting.  I have yet to hear many arguments against either of these aspects of detecting, though they have been lumped in with the arguments against relic hunting in many cases.  I will limit this discussion to relic hunting in particular.

This US belt buckle from the Civil War shows extensive plow damage.  It was recovered from a field where troop movement is highly documented and recorded, but where archeological excavation would not  be logical.  Without relic hunters, it would have been destroyed in that field where it lay.

Part One:  The Skewed Reality of Detecting "Reality" Shows

There are two fundamental parts to the argument against shows like these and their portrayal of the relic hunting community.  The first is a depiction of relic hunting solely as a means of financial gain, a concept which neither professionals nor amateurs agree with.  Now don’t get me wrong, metal detecting is one of the few hobbies that can pay for its own equipment in the long run.  A man at my detecting club recently purchased Big Dawg search coil for his detector, and on his second trip the unique geometry of the coil allowed him to find a gold ring which paid for the coil.  If I were to sell my Civil War relics, I would certainly be able to pay for my equipment and then some (though I have been fortunate enough to make a few lucky finds which contribute the bulk of the worth of my collection).  Those who are in it for the money tend to be jewelry hunters, searching modern schools, parks, and beaches, not historical areas. 

But this hobby is far from profitable as a career path.  Only a very few will ever find enough to cover the cost of their equipment, batteries, fuel, and most of all the incredible amount of time required to be successful.  For each post I make showing Civil War relics I have gone out at least as many times on full day detecting trips and found nothing whatsoever.  Contrary to what these shows depict, the overwhelming majority of relic hunters I have ever met don’t do it for monetary reasons, and those who do would be quite disappointed at the typical results.  No, we relic hunters do it for the same love of history and preservation of artifacts that motivates professional archeologists.

The reality of relic hunting - far more trash than treasure. 
I personally dug everything that you see in this picture

Shows like Diggers and American Digger have been crafted in the same way as other successful profit-based shows like Storage Wars and American Pickers.  But in doing so, they completely misrepresent both the intentions of most relic hunters as well as the potential for profit.  Reports from the premier of Diggers show incredibly inflated values of recovered objects, and as I said, it is extremely difficult to make any money as a relic hunting hobbyist.  Sadly, this irresponsible depiction may attract new detectorists with the wrong motivations for relic hunting, delusions of quick wealth, and little training.  While I doubt that such types will stick with the hobby once they learn the reality of how difficult it actually is, I worry about the damage they may cause to our hobby in the meantime if they don’t practice ethical detecting.

Part Two:  The Impossible Idealism of the "Professionals-Only" Argument

The second argument against these shows illustrates the divide between traditional archeology and amateur enthusiasts, and is the most common argument that I have seen from those who are neither professionals nor hobby diggers.  The argument claims that relic hunting damages the integrity of historic sites, and such recoveries should only be performed by professional archeologists in every circumstance.  It isn’t simply against these shows, but the very act of relic hunting.  Those on the extreme of this viewpoint call us looters, thieves of history, and even graverobbers.  This argument is unfortunately, in large part, misinformed and counterproductive to the stated goal of preservation of our history.  Allow me to explain, but first, a caveat.

I do believe that not all sites should be available to relic hunting.  The most basic example is undisturbed pre-historic sites.  Since there is no written record of these human activities, the only information that we can gather is through painstaking archeological excavation, and this should be left to the professionals.  Furthermore, some locations in modern history are simply too engrained in our social fabric to be left to the amateurs, or are generally considered “hallowed ground” that should remain untouched by all.  Sites like Gettysburg and Monticello spring to mind.  But rather than focusing on banning metal detecting at all sites, professional archeologists need to work to preserve these sites of specific cultural importance (many of which have been purchased by the government for preservation).  I see nothing wrong with this approach whatsoever.

The argument of destruction of American cultural heritage falls apart, however, when applied to most sites which are searched by amateur relic hunters.  There aren’t enough professional archeologists, time, or money in the entire United States budget to conduct a full archeological excavation at all of this nations modern-historical sites.  Even if there were, very little new evidence would be gained by such an endeavor.  The lifestyles of 18
th and 19th century America are well documented.  Civil War troop locations were well recorded (that’s how I’m able to find these sites in the first place!), and typical camp life is well understood.

The Freeman House (now Roxy Farms Antiques) in Saxapahaw, which I detected several times in 2011, was built in the late 1800's.  There are simply far too many historical sites like this one for archeologists to survey them all, and very little new information would be gained by doing so.

I often hear how important it is to examine the “strata”, or layering of depth of artifacts at a site.  But typical Civil War camp sites are often found in farmed fields, routinely plowed to depths of up to three FEET.  Strata, in such a circumstance, are meaningless.  Furthermore, we know the years and in many cases weeks or even specific days when these relics were lost thanks to the historical record.  Again, very little additional information can be obtained by a professional versus an amateur historian, even if we had unlimited resources for such professional excavations.

The idea of leaving these relics in the ground for professional recovery would be disastrous for the preservation of these items.  Many volumes of relic identification guides have been written by relic hunters based on their recoveries.  To leave these relics in the ground would be to allow them to decay to nothing, and as another relic hunter put it so eloquently, this would be nothing short of “looting by neglect.”  There is nothing more saddening to a relic hunter than excavating a Civil War era button and watching it crumble away to nothing (quite literally) upon recovery thanks to years of plow damage and heavy fertilizer use.  Contrary to popular belief, these relics won’t be around forever until an archeologist has the time and money to recover them.  They will continue to succumb to oxidation, chemical damage, physical damage from plows and bulldozers, and burial under asphalt and concrete until nothing remains.  All in the name of “preservation” from amateur relic hunters who would recover, restore, preserve, and cherish the history of these items without the luxury of a PhD and a government grant.  Pardon me if I sound a bit frustrated by that notion.

 These bullets were recovered from a construction site ready for development.  The bullets with blue circles show damage from bulldozers.  The bullet in the red circle was found on top of the ground illustrating the disturbed strata of the site.

Part 3:  The Benefits of Compromise

I mean this with no disrespect for traditional archeologists.  In fact, I believe detectorists, with all their passion for the preservation of history, are a great untapped resource for the archeological community.  I have even worked side by side with professionals from the North Carolina Office of State Archeology conducting a detector survey of the Battle of Alamance.  Together with the Old North State Detectorists club, we donated many hundreds of man hours at no cost to the state, surveying the battlefield, recording finds locations, and recovering relics for preservation.  Many of our finds are currently on display at the battlefield museum, including a rare USA button, the first and only physical evidence of a second skirmish reported to have occurred at the site later during the Revolutionary War.  The site was not a good candidate for traditional excavation (doing so would have cost much more time and money than the state could provide), and without our help that fragile pewter button would have crumbled away to nothing underground.  I have to note, however, that archeologists will never be able to tap into the potential assistance from detectorists if the rhetoric of looters and graverobbers continues.

This is me holding a musket ball from the Battle of Alamance, recovered while working with the North Carolina Office of State Archeology.

I invite the reader to peruse my site once more, and realize that many of the relics shown here would have been lost forever without amateur relic hunters like myself.  Many of the bullets presented here were recovered from a site already cleared and graded for development, soon to be covered over in asphalt.  The US buckle I recovered is nearly destroyed by constant plow damage, and would not have survived much longer in that farmed field.  The private properties where I have recovered relics with landowner permission right here in Saxapahaw would never be considered as candidates for professional archeological excavation.

This South Carolina state seal button was recovered at the Battle of Bentonville, NC.  The back is corroded and almost destroyed, while the front is barely recognizable.  The field has been plowed and turned for many years, and it common knowledge to historians that South Carolina troops were on the road where it was recovered.  There are currently no scheduled plans for archeological digs in the Bentonville area to my knowledge.  Without relic hunters, artifacts like these will be destroyed by time and the elements.

Relic hunters are not stealing history, but are showing our enthusiasm for it by preserving artifacts which would otherwise be lost.  Unfortunately, shows like “Diggers” misrepresent our goals and inflate the idea of relic hunting for profit, and do us all a disservice.  Please, do not fall into the trap of Hollywood hype, but go talk to some relic hunters for yourself.  I do believe you will find the vast majority to be as passionate and motivated about preserving history as any professional.

Sorry for the rant.  But like I said, we’re a passionate lot.

(End post.)
Here's the link to Tony's post and his blog. As a side bar, I am fascinated by *archaeology and appreciate the work of professional archaeologists. I learn all I can from them when I can. I also subscribe to Archaeology, a professional journal and publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. Most of us (relic hunters) really do take what we do seriously and respect the potential historical significance of the items we remove from the ground.

* "Archeology" is an alternate spelling for "Archaeology." Both spellings are accepted by most scholars today.


Brock Townsend said...

Hunt away!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Brock. I've not forgotten - I'll call you this week.