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Metal detecting and archaeology

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

We live in a great time in that metal detecting technologies are finely being utilized in a productive and less destructive manor. Coursed like the Advanced Metal Detecting for the Archaeologist and Introduction to metal detecting, NPS, are being held and instructed by the best names in conflict archaeology. I have invited several of those instructors to also add to this Blog so check back often for new and useful content.




Do You Have to Dig It? It is becoming the job of the archaeologist to not only find the sites but think of ways to preserve them. I have personally dug thousands of shovel tests in the search for cultural resources and know when we encounter a positive that's when the job really starts. A positive STP let it be historic or prehistoric in nature starts off a chain reaction of responsibility to treat the resource with due respect. Although not all sites are the same, in the beginning they should be treated the same. A single flake in a shallow disturbed soil horizon may seem like a waste of time but I have repeatedly seen them blow up into major sites during site delineations. But, how much further damage are we causing to the resource by shovel testing? we have to ask yourself if there are methods better suited to our preservationist ideals?


Within the last 10 years or so we have seen technologies entering the archaeology field such as increased use of GPR, aerial photography, LIDAR, and metal detection equipment. UWF Field school learning to delineate without digging Author at NCPTT training in Pecos New Mexico Although much of this equipment is beyond the cost of the average archeological firm and university, our clientele is asking for it in addition to our other offerings. Hopefully with working with these technology companies we can create an affordable option for this technology. Now fitting this equipment into our daily archaeological routine may seem overkill by some, but is proving to be highly effective on defining sites. I, being a detector wielding mad man labeled a "shill" by some, have proven over and over again the effectiveness of the metal detector to better define historic resources over traditional methods, and not just the battlefields. Those pesky mid 19th century standing chimneys found throughout the south have been greatly ignored due to the fact they produce very small footprint and can be early missed or only provide minimal data with shovel testing. These are better defined by metal detecting than any other means. Farmsteads like these often recorded showing just the footing and chimney and sometimes the well, now growing up on a small farm and know that for every farmstead there are outbuildings, barns, corrals, roads and trash middens or refuse pits. Every time we come across these little sites we should be making a checklist of features that should be present. Of all the technologies listed above the metal detector is the most effective in identifying these features, not to mention lower cost. When Dr. Doug Scott and Richard Fox first used the metal detector to study the Battle of Little Bighorn in the early 1980's he was met with a rather cold shoulder from his colleagues. " Metal detectors are the tool of the everyday looter, they said." Instructors with the AMDA retort, "so is the shovel"… A metal detector in the right hands can often be the best tool for the historic resource. With the newest technologies like the CTX 3030 Minelab has there is now the ability to determine exact dimensions of cultural remains of a house or outbuilding without placing a shovel in the ground, not to mention the ability to map using the built in GPS. But with this technology comes great responsibility, with curation and metal conversation costs at a premium a sampling strategy should be discussed with the client and SHIPO prior to conducting a late scale metal detecting project. For example in a recent metal detection survey conducted by New South 20% of the ferris targets were sampled and 100% non-Ferris. This was in order to sample the nails and collect the stable non-ferris dateable objects in preparation for a Phase III data recovery. Overall we collected well over a 1000 artifacts but this would of been much higher if we collected every square cut nail and curation cost would have soared. Doug Scott photo'd and placed back the artifact , yes this is preservation Why do we need this? Well archaeology, by its very nature is destructive. A shovel test is a necessary evil that tells us about the soil horizons and the absence or presence of artifacts. Some states have very close interval shovel testing that could be problematic in the future if these sites are deemed eligible. It seems that this very fact has been written off as a necessity of our occupation, metal detecting with the right equipment and knowledge can greatly reduce much of the detractive nature and aid the archaeologist in determining eligibility without causing undo damage to archaeological sites. In fact even those artifacts that are found can be returned after infield analysis and photography, this is becoming common on many National Park properties we have had the pleasure to work on. A tool that can allow for more knowledge to be gained and be less intrusive is invaluable to our profession and remember just because the detector beeps you don't have to dig it...




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