Sunday 19 April 2009

Diggin' in Virginia

In the past couple of decades, US archaeologists have developed a methodology of examining extensive topsoil sites such as battlefields and military encampments in a manner that helps reconstruct the flow of a historic fight, give insight into military strategy or, at a campsite, illuminate the living conditions of the soldiers there in a way that documentary evidence alone cannot. This approach was pioneered in the US. The work done at the site of Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer's Last Stand (1876), in Montana for example is a classic of this methodological approach in which metal detector users were involved. It also shows how easily the evidence held in the top few inches of topsoil can be destroyed if part of it is taken away by artefact hunters and collectors.

From Virginia, Brigid Schulte reports ('Unearthed War Relics See Battle Again Archaeologists Decry History Buffs' Digs ', Washington Post April 16, 2006) on a three-day commercial "safari" relic hunt called Diggin' in Virginia one weekend this spring, which was anything but the careful systematic work needed to investigate such a site. More than 200 relic hunters (interestingly dressed mainly in camouflage as in the UK) swept the fields of Brandy Rock Farm in Culpeper County with their metal detectors. To take part they'd paid a couple of hundred dollars each.
Obviousl some thought it was worth it. One metal detectorist is stated to have found a Confederate ‘Mississippi belt plate” apparently worth $12000, while others are quoted as getting excited about finding a Minié shot as “about as close as you can get to stepping back in time."

The site of this metal detecting rally – a form of exploitation of the archaeological resource which she reports is becoming increasingly popular in parts of the USA - was an 1863 Civil War campsite. While the “dig” was perfectly legal, the site was stripped of a large amount of any evidence of past activity it may have contained. Since no recording of findspots seems to have taken place here and all the finds have anyway been scattered into 200 personal collections and on eBay, that is now one more site of this period that can no longer be studied by more sophisticated investigation techniques to understand the past.

The same weekend as Diggin' in Virginia, 200 relic hunters roamed Fort Powhatan on the James River during the Texas-based North South Hunt, jockeying to see who could mine the most Revolutionary and Civil War goodies. (The same group holds the Grand National Relic Shootout and the Git R Dun hunts in Virginia.)
Again, it appears no recording of findspots was done and information was lost and the site irreparably damaged by the selective and unrecorded removal of part of the evidence.

US archaeologists are not slow to point out that such metal detecting rallies represent the wholesale destruction of evidence of the past. Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state's Department of Historic Resources says: "These digs are like ripping the pages out of a book as you read and setting them on fire […]"It's an outrage."

The metal detectorists counter such concerns with the same time-worn old excuses that we see in the UK . The relic hunters deny any connection with “the bad guys -- the ones who use night-vision goggles and sneak into protected sites at night to dig things up, or the ones who sell what they find on eBay”. “Metal detectorists” “have such a passion for the past”, “they write books on what they find” (references please). Some "pinpoint what they dug up”. Others have "donated hundreds of hours to help archaeologists”. “many of the places they dig have been ploughed for 140 years and that artifacts have been scattered, there is no context" (not true- see above). "This stuff's just rotting in the ground," “If these sites are so important, why haven't archaeologists staked their claim?” (heard of conservation guys?). We’ve heard it all before, it cuts no mustard when the overall effect is erosive and destructive.

Members of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists have begun protesting to state legislators and other officials and are enlisting the aid of local historic preservation groups. They've also contacted landowners to get them to stop the digs. Last year in the state's General Assembly, lawmakers considered a measure that would have required relic hunters to get written permission from landowners before digging, and to catalogue and report what they found. The bill also would have established that relics belonged to the state, not any individual. It was resoundingly crushed in committee. Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said he got hundreds of angry e-mails and letters for sponsoring the bill. "I was not prepared for what happened to me," he said. "The floodgates opened."
Oh, we can imagine. On a safari you are told never to get between a hippopotamus and water, it will attack you. Equally anyone suggesting that like some other finite resources artefacts in archaeological context should be under some form of state protection is asking for trouble from US collectors. Still, I do not expect Democratic delegates do much hanging around on US collectors’ forums and listen to the anti-establishment “cold dead hands’ pose-striking there.

What is more interesting is the anger that seems to have been directed at a proposal that it is reported “would have required relic hunters to get written permission from landowners before digging”, what on earth is so devastating about that? What actually is wrong in obliging those who dig up an historical site and take away artifacts from it to “catalogue and report what they found”?

We have all been witness to the constant barrage of calls from the artefact collecting community, and the US artefact collecting community in particular, for all those “source nations” (with their “restrictive laws” which stand between them and the ancient geegaws they want to decorate their collections with) to adopt “the British system”. By this they mean hefty rewards for reporting state-acquired finds, archaeologists working as “partners” of the artefact hunters to record as much as possible of the findspot information, but teh artefact hunter talking away (for example to sell to US collectors) as much as they want. So why is it so difficult for them to apply a system based on similar principles in their own country? Why are US relic hunters against the recording of finds? Why have US detectorists not even set up something like the UKDFD, let alone lobbied strenuously for the US government to set aside the funds required to set up an archaeological outreach programme like the PAS which would record finds made by members of the public in the course of their everyday and recreational activities? It seems to me that before calling for other nations to change their whole system of heritage management to suit the US collector, US advocates of collectors' "rights" should be applying it consistently to their own land. Before they can convert foreign governments, civil society and artefact hunters to the British system, let them convince their own. So what about it ACCG, when do you start?

Photo: "History Buff" looking for pieces of the past to take home. Photo Lucian Perkins.


jake said...

I can see your point regarding metal detectorists. However the system we have in the UK while annoying is vaguely workable. As the old saying says "it's better to have your enemys in the tent p*ssing out. Then having them outside p*ssing in."
MDs are here now and we are stuck with em. They do it because they want some 'history' to take home. So the most we as archaeologists can do is to make the best of a bad job ,and at least record it before it gets taken. If we didn't make it worth their while to contact us, they would just walk off with their finds and we would be the worse off. Though I agree with you that it is infuriating.

Paul Barford said...

I've never heard that "old saying" but let me assure you I dont want any of them urinating anywhere near my tent. Literally or metaphorically.

As for MDs are here now and we are stuck with em.
they only are as long as you lot (I'm not saying "we") allow them to be. Ever thought of standing up for the protection of the archaeological resource from erosion through exploitation for personal entertainment and profit? Why not? Defeatists the lot of you.

But I rather think you are missing the point of my post which is that if US collectors of portable antiquities are going to propose (nay, demand) that the countries that are the "sources" of the antiquities they covet should adopt the "British system", they should at least start with lobbying for its wholesale adoption in their own country.

Marcus Preen said...

"So the most we as archaeologists can do is to make the best of a bad job ,and at least record it before it gets taken."

Thank goodness zoologists and botanists don't say that about pandas and lillies.

Where is it written that metal detectorists can't be stopped because if we tried to they'd do it worse? I suspect the rumour originated from metal detectorists. Wherever it came from it is patently not true and certainly shouldn't be the basic starting point of heritage management strategies.

Unknown said...

Hi and it sure would be nice if you would do a little more research before publishing some untruths about some of these digs. All of the finds are historically tracked and put on found sheets for the archives in these hunts.Some people just dislike the good guys because of a bad few. I just know that businesses like Walmart and all the other property owners will just let everyone come on their property to dig --I think not and all these so called relics can stay in the ground for another century. Too bad your so narrow minded as I totally respect the history of all these finds.How many of these relics when the state gets involved will ever be shown or put in some back room or worse -sold to take care of other money problems. All I ask is to get your facts right or keep quiet and say nothing!! Relichunter

Paul Barford said...

"Relichunter", I am perfectly willing to do the research when the material is available. When I wrote this I was unable to find a published account of the results of this “dig” setting out the research design and methodology. I’d be grateful if you could point me to one.

I am not sure I understand what is meant here by finds being “historically tracked” and what information the “found sheets” contain, nor where the archives are kept and how they are made available for research and curated for posterity.

It is too simplistic to assert that “Some people just dislike the good guys because of a bad few”. There are no “good or bad” holes in the archaeological record where collectable objects have been selectively removed merely for entertainment or profit. As far as I am concerned, in terms of the preservation of the archaeological record, which is my concern, it is an entirely negative phenomenon. Trying to justify it by saying that excavated material studied by archaeologists is “not all on show” to the general public somewhere is quite beside the point, neither are all the artifacts dug out of the sites damaged by these rallies or the activities of your fellow metal detector users outside the rally. Neither is stocking museums any longer the main aim of modern archaeology. But to take your argument further, Civil War relics are shown in many US museums, so in that case if having such items “on show” is the issue here, why do fellow detector using collectors not go and see them there, instead of filling their pockets with them? Isn’t the “not on show” argument just a weak defence for greed?

I also fail to see the logic of your comment about finds allegedly being “sold to take care of other money problems” when that is precisely what the pro-collecting lobbyists want to see happening.

I am unclear why you seem to think those who oppose artefact hunting are in some way incapable of “respecting the history” of archaeological finds. I rather think it is those who dig them out of the context which is an essential part of that history who are not “respecting history”, but destroying it in their greed to get their ands on some emotive geegaws.

JGHarris said...

While I love to metal detect for Relics in my spare time which is limited due to life and family. I would get just as much joy out of assisting and archaeolgist. I have help plenty of sites such as churces and homeowners recover document and display the finds in local museums or the buildings the sites reside. I have approached archaeolgist before and when they hear metal detector they grunt somthign about looting and turn their back on me. I can quote my views on archaeolgist as the same ole. While you complain about lack of funding, resources etc the construction continues and bull dozers keep on pushing dirt covering relics and destroying sites. If I see a cookie cutter drug store going up on the corner in or near a site of historic value, I am going to do what I can to recover the artifacts. If I called you and said that I just found an eagle button and 2 roud balls on a construction site what would you do? Im guessing nothing. However most archaeolgist would do nothing then complain because I found them. There are a few archaeolgist who want to work with me and other like me and there are some that would like to just jail us for even owning a detector. and for every bad archaeolgist there is a bad Relic hunter. Take the good with the bad and use the good. I would love to help any archaeolgist that would allow me to do so

Paul Barford said...

But do you accept that there is a difference between archaeology and merely picking up and making a collection of "relics"?

Question: why cannot archaeologists wave a metal detector around? Some kind of inferior beings who cannot read the manual and find the "on" switch do you reckon?

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