Madison Square

Madison Square
Savannah Under Fire archaeologists work in Madison Square, Savannah, GA, surrounded by visitors and citizens interested in our dig.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Metal detecting archaeologists

After the disastrous defeat in 1779, the allies fled past two (still present) Jewish Cemeteries where a regiment of Haitian volunteers protected the retreating soldiers. Earlier in the year, we did ground penetrating radar and shovel test pits over several acres of private property around the cemeteries. These property owners generously allowed us to harass them a second time, as we conducted a metal detector survey last week. The results of our survey can be found on the YouTube video, "The Retreat". There is also a two-part interview with Dan Battle, an archaeologist and our metal detector expert/consultant.

I have previously written about our difficulty in finding sites this fieldwork season. I have asked if any citizens out there have found Revolutionary War items in their backyards. (Email photos to No one has responded. So we turned to the people who have found artifacts: the metal detector hobbyists.

Even being in the same room as "evil metal detecting looters" would send some archaeologists running for the hills. I would like to propose a more moderate, central position for both archaeologists and metal detectorists. First, there are many different attitudes among metal detectorists ranging from people who loot and sell artifacts for money to those who only collect on sites about to destroyed by development. Selling artifacts for profit is completely unethical for the professional archaeologist (see the Society for American Archaeology Principles of Archaeological Ethics). 

But what about sites that were destroyed and no archaeology was conducted? What if we could recover some information from a metal detectorists who hunted part of the 1779 Battle of Savannah retreat during a construction project? What if that information could be used to find more of the site and ultimately led to more site preservation?

Perhaps metal detectorists and archaeologists could work together on projects where archaeologists supply the methodology and scientific rigor, and detectorists supply the manpower and expertise with their machines. This has been wildly successful on the BRAVO project (Battlefield Restoration & Archaeological Volunteer Organization) which focuses on the Revolutionary War Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, NJ.  Dan Sivilich gave an excellent presentation at our 2010 Society for Historical Archaeology conference symposium, Revolutionary Steps: Marching Towards Research and Preservation. His notes are posted on our slideshare site.

Savannah is losing archaeological sites at an alarming, rapid rate. We all care about Savannah's history; let's work together to preserve and protect it. Archaeologists will have to admit that metal detectorists are more knowledgeable in certain areas. Metal detectorists will have to exchange learning new information for keeping bags of useless artifacts. (useless, of course, because they have been pulled out of the context). I think we can find a d├ętente where we can save the last of the Revolution in Savannah.

Disagree with me? Fire away in the comments section.


  1. Conducted with a proper project design, systematic approach and appropriate equipment, metal detectors can lend much information to a site given that the removal of artifacts be limited to previously disturbed levels. But you're very right in that it is a contentious issue to both the hobbyist and archaeologists.

  2. Here's one success story of a hobby detectorist locating, lobbying, and actually leading an effort to save a significant threatened resource.

  3. Your post really helped me to understand the Article. It has great details and yet it is easy to understand. I will definitely share it with others.

  4. The "hobbyist" as you call it has also done there research and usually recognizes urban sprawl stops for no artifact. We care enough to get to these places before another interstate or hotel is built over an area that our state archaeologist so easily dismissed as "not of significant historical importance"...? To whom the developer that paid you? The State department that funds you? It is significant to me! We know the context of of what we pull. Its why we are there in the first place. It is important to us history buffs with rock flippers and metal finders. We care so much we try to salvage what is bound to a drawer in a college basement never to be seen again. You kill the history by keeping it in those drawers. You so called paper archaeologist act like your the only ones that do your homework. Just because we don't have a piece of paper showing the couple semesters we wasted in school doesn't negate the years of the subject intensive research between our ears and our true motivation for bringing to light what most "schoolers" hide. I went to college. The ones that did know what im talking about when I say 2 semesters of a class doesn't make you anything. Its getting out there and doing it that does. Why do they do the school? So they can publish a theory?....and if they dont stays in the drawer, or their private stash. If they do publish,...we see a drawing or two and notes on what they found if one cares to apply much time digging thru college archaeology departments to read the published works of egotism so the "schooler" could graduate and work for the State. So much for public knowledge. I've personally seen archaeologist led digs take place never to see or hear the outcome....Show me yours and I'll show you mine.