WASHINGTON – Bill Long of the Maryland Research and Recovery Society recognizes that some archeologists have a “disdain” for metal detector enthusiasts like him.
They think people like him ignore the care and precision needed to preserve history, instead just buying a detector off the street, finding a piece of history and selling it for a price, said Long.
“It’s a touchy subject with a lot of people,” said Ron Barnes, president of the Southern Maryland Artifact Recovery Team, of the tension between metal detector enthusiasts and archeologists.
But Barnes and Long said there is a breed of metal detector enthusiasts who are more specialist than faddist, hobbyists who are making efforts to do the right thing and protect what they find. They do their homework on the area they want to search — whether it is a Civil War site or a Baltimore City park — learning who would have been there and what artifacts they might find.
Those types get an appreciative nod from Susan Langley, state underwater archeologist, who said some metal detector enthusiasts seek her advice and offer to help with official projects.
“The groups around here are pretty good,” said Langley. But, she added, “There’s always a few bad apples.”
Depending on who’s speaking, then, hobbyists with metal detectors are either stealing or salvaging Maryland’s history.
Most archeologists interviewed couldn’t pinpoint a specific Maryland site that was in danger from the metal scavengers. Civil War battlefields can be at risk because that is where a lot of metal can be found, said Robert Sonderman, an archeologist in the National Capital Region of the National Park Service.
But the more insidious threat to archeological sites than the loss of the artifacts themselves, experts said, is the loss of the context in which the artifact was discovered. Context to an archeologist means how deep the artifact lay in the ground or the exact location where it was found.
“An artifact has no value without context,” said Al Luckenbach, an archeologist for Anne Arundel County, who believes the number of responsible metal detector enthusiasts is small.
Langley put it this way: She would rather go to the site to see an artifact than have it brought to her in a paper bag.
One little button can be a key to historical past, she said. By looking at the make and type of button, archeologists can also find clues to what life was like in that time period and add parts to history that most documents leave out.
Some archeologists do, however, find metal detector enthusiasts helpful enough that they have called on the hobbyists to help recover artifacts in circumstances where time is of the essence.
Matthew Reeves, director of archeology for the Montpelier Foundation near Orange, Va., said amateurs might be called upon because they can often locate many more items in a shorter period of time than an archeologist using more traditional methods.
During one search, Reeves said, metal detector enthusiasts found about 800 artifacts in a 400-square-foot area. Archeologists found only one at the same site under the same pressure of a time crunch.
Reeves said that one other advantage to the enthusiasts, if they’re careful, is that they often do searches for free.
Other archeologists admit that they use hobbyists, but only under direct supervision. Luckenbach said that what enthusiasts find and take on their own hurts history only “by a matter of degrees.”
For example, an enthusiast scouring for Mercury dimes at a 1940s gas station will be less harmful than one taking something from a 1680s site. That’s because we know a lot more about the 1940s than the 1680s and have more accessible resources for the later period, Luckenbach said, including people who lived through the era.
Specialists like Long and Barnes admit that there are those enthusiasts who don’t abide by the rules, leaving the entire field with a bad name. Long said they hope to counter these problems through education during meetings of local metal detector societies, also known as treasure hunting and prospecting clubs.
But Barnes downplayed the seriousness that archeologists attribute to the role of some metal-detector enthusiasts. While he himself catalogs his discoveries, and said he has “never sold an item for a cent,” he thinks the archeologists go too far and demand standards that are too high.
“It’s not like we’re gong to uncover King Tut,” he said, noting that this nation is one of the most historically documented in the world.