#121 Should Metal Detectors be Regulated?

A response to the article, “Artifact Club: on the trail of historical treasures” published in The Bulletin online at http://www.bendbulletin.com/article/20120812/NEWS0107/208120350/

As I was reading some archaeology news articles today I stumbled across this little gem.  Please, go take a look at the article before you read my comments.

Let’s start with the title.  Putting the words “artifact” and “treasures” into the same sentence sends the wrong message to the public.  This goes back to the Spike TV and National Geographic shows about artifact hunters and the message that it sends to the public.  Does everyone know that it’s illegal to take artifacts from public lands or lands that you don’t have permission to do so on?  No, they don’t.  I know some very smart people that grew up picking up “arrowheads” off their property and out on hikes on public lands.  They didn’t know it was wrong.  They still don’t know it’s wrong.  

For those that don’t know, we often only have the projectile points and debris from making projectile points to record a site with.  We can tell a lot about the people that lived or visited a site from the debris they left behind.  I’ve personally recorded many hundreds of “lithic scatters” which are just collections of debitage, or “chipped stone” that was the result of making projectile points and other tools.  If there is nothing else left except for the chipped stone debris then there isn’t much we can learn from the site other than the fact that someone did something there. With careful analysis we can sometimes discern what they might have done on that site but that’s about it.  The points (arrowheads) sometimes allow us to discern who was on the site, not just what they did there.

The article begins by talking about the historical background to the artifacts that the people in the article are finding:

They look for places where pioneers heading west climbed from covered wagons to assess a creek crossing. Places where blue coats and gray coats camped and perhaps traded gunfire. Places where families picnicked and played at the water’s edge.”

After detailing the history that is being lost to the pubic because a few people decided to keep the artifacts (or sell them) for themselves and not let everyone know about the history they found and what it means, the article author glorifies the act by calling the artifacts “buried treasure”.  Nice.

The members of the Mid-Western Artifact Society each wear a “utility apron” to put artifacts and trash in.  There’s no GPS or any desire or effort made to provide a provenience for the artifacts.  At one point the author says, “Every item tells a story”.  Yes, they do.  Their location and their association with the other artifacts on the site also tells a story.  In fact, they tell a more complete story than one artifact, out of context, sitting in a shadow box on your bookshelf.

These club members are not always digging on private land either.  There are more than a few references to digging on public park land.  I’m not sure about local ordinances but that doesn’t sound legal.  It might be, of course, but it’s certainly not ethical.

According to the article 2,416 coins were found in June and 4,426 coins were found in May.  Astounding.

I have no problem with the events they have where coins and other artifacts are actually buried so members can have fun finding everything.  That actually sounds pretty fun.  Of course most of the buried “loot” was likely taken from legitimate archaeology sites.

The ethics section of the article discusses the club’s insistence that they follow local ordinances and always get land owner permission for private land.  They mention that property owners often will take a split on whatever is found.  This is similar to the Spike TV show.  Again, they don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing.

I know that doing pretty much anything on private land is not illegal.  And, I’m not say that it should be illegal.  People just need to be informed and educated as to the importance of artifact provenience as it pertains to the interpretation of sites.  That’s a tough thing to do, I know.  The Discovery Channel isn’t going to do it.  We have to.  Tell your friends and family why taking an artifact from a site (or moving it) will hurt our ability to interpret the site.

The last bit of the article relates a story about the group being contacted to find a lost wedding ring.  That’s a great application for a metal detector and I’m glad they were able to find it.

So, back to my post title: should metal detectors be regulated?  Maybe.  I can’t imagine too many uses for metal detectors that don’t involve hunting for artifacts.  Of course if you regulate metal detectors you’ll have to regulate shovels and trowels as well.  No one wants that!  I guess I don’t have a solution to the problem, aside from education, of course.  Education is the key to so many of our problems.  You’d think we’d have learned by now.  Guess not.

Thanks for letting me rant on this topic.  It’s upsetting that they article has such an upbeat tone and that there was no effort to contact an archaeologist to get that side of the story and an opinion on metal detecting clubs.  Again, inform your family and friends about this topic.  Don’t yell at them and don’t be a dick about it.  That attitude will get you no where.  Just tell them what we would have learned if the artifacts had stayed in place and how leaving the artifacts in place is much more valuable than cashing them in.  Tell them it’s valuable to everyone if the artifacts are left in place, not just one or several people.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field.