Finding history with a metal detector

Let’s suppose that you got a metal detector for Christmas. You are waiting for the first nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon to take it out and explore with it. You know of a place nearby—maybe a place where a Civil War skirmish was fought—and you are eager to see if you can find some bullets or brass buttons or belt buckles.

Wait! Stop! Don’t do it until you know how to do it right. If you think you can find some stuff and bring it home and show it to people and impress them, you’re probably wrong. In a worst case scenario, you are actually guilty of vandalism and of destroying history.

Step one of the proper way to conduct historical research with a metal detector is to get permission of the owner of the property to search for items there. If the property belongs to a state park or a national park, forget about it—only professional archaeologists will be allowed to search there. On private property or maybe a city park, you may have luck getting permission. If you own the property yourself, you are free to do what you want, but you should still go about things the right way.

Having permission to search, you want to bring more than a metal detector and a shovel. Bring a camera, a pad of paper and a pencil or pen, and a set of small brightly-colored flags (orange is good) numbered from one to whatever.

When you arrive, chose a parcel of ground to search, and photograph it from several angles before you start searching. The “before” pictures are very important to researchers.

Sweep the area with your metal detector, and plant a flag on every spot where you detect an item. Don’t dig yet. When you have finished searching, take more pictures from several directions. Also draw a rough map of the parcel, showing the approximate location of every flag with its number. Your map does not need to be precise—the photographs will help with that—but it should show the relative position of the flags.

Next, one by one, dig up the objects that you found with the metal detector. Try not to move them as you unearth them. As each one becomes visible, take a picture of it where it lies. Try to include the flag in the picture with the number visible. Strive to make it clear exactly how the item is oriented within the parcel—maybe take every picture from the north, or in every picture make sure the flag is to the north of the item. Once you have photographed it in its place, you may remove it, clean it, wrap it, and bring it home.

Now, when a historian or archaeologist studies your items, he or she will be able to create a more complete account of the story they reveal. Knowing where they were in the parcel and how they were lying, the researcher will develop far more information than was possible just looking at the item without any context.

By the same token, let’s suppose that you decide to develop that weed patch or empty bit of lawn behind your house. When you start digging, you find some ancient stone tools, the kind that many people call arrowheads. (Most of them are too big to have been used on arrows. They were probably attached to throwing spears.) You might be tempted to scoop them up, throw them in a box, and show your collection to others later. But once you have moved them, they have lost nearly their entire value, unless you first document exactly how they were situated when they were discovered.

Once again, take some “before” pictures with your camera. Then flag each artifact and take more pictures. Photograph each item as it lies, and then you may carefully remove it. As you continue your project, keep track in the same way of every item you find. Only in this way can you preserve the story of what happened on your land long before you ever bought it and moved onto it.

Of course it would be even better if you invited some professional archaeologists to handle these items for you and for the sake of future researchers. Probably you are unwilling to delay your project for several months until they can work you into their schedule. Working with the discovered items the same way professionals would work with them is your best procedure. History belongs to all of us. Taking the trouble to preserve as much of it as possible is a task which also belongs to all of us. J.