Archaeological Resource Preservation: Museum-Archaeology Community and…Metal Detectorists??

Having moved back to Long Island recently after several years away, I now find myself appreciating more and more the rich cultural heritage inscribed in the island’s history. I learned of one interesting story from an article in Newsday’s Long Island section. The article, “Hunting history to save it” by Bill Bleyer, highlights a local cultural resource management project involving the collaboration of metal-detecting enthusiasts and the Southampton Historical Society. In a nutshell:

The 112-year-old non-profit museum and research center has partnered with–contracted–a paying community of avid metal-detectorists, the Artifact Detecting Team (ADT), to hunt for archaeological resources dating to Southampton’s early-18th century Colonial past. Profits from ADT’s scheduled pre-registered hunting weekends (they are selling out!) on the town’s freshly tilled farm lands are put towards the estimated $326,000 restoration of the 1739 Sayre Barn, while all recovered artifacts are subject to finders-keepers for the metal-detecting hobbyists.

Now, I dare say actual “data” is shared in this sympathetic, if not unusual, cultural resource management partnership. Because the fields are cultivated, finds–including copper coins, colonial buttons, military musket balls, andother interesting objects (but excluding American Indian artifacts, which are returned to the Shinnecock Nation)–are out of context and therefore not on true historical or archaeological sites. In such cases “relics” churned up through agriculture provide little scientific value to professional archaeologists yet offer a perfect opportunity for metal-detecting to take place en masse. As Southampton’s local history and research center, the museum only asks to record and photograph the artifacts before becoming part of someone’s private collection.

I’d like to offer up a few interesting contradictions here, as I struggle to fully appreciate the actions and intentions of both sides:

1) In this promotional video describing the collaborative venture with ADT, Southampton Historical Society Executive Director Tom Edmonds says, “The Sayre Barn is in very critical need of restoration. It’s going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars. What we’d like to do with this barn is remind tourists and residents of the role Southampton played in the American Revolution, and the Sayre Barn could be a great educational tool.” Sounds to me like the primary goal of this emergency conservation project is to raise public awareness of the Sayre Barn’s historical value through education and access to an authentically restored site. Although I support historical preservation and the use of cultural resources for educational purposes, I am dismayed by the fact that future museum patrons will miss the opportunity to learn more of the Sayre Barn’s history because metal-detectorists walked away with associated artifacts. On the very first hunting weekend, 32 coins dating as far back as 1750, more than 100 Colonial buttons, buckles, a copper ring, and two Civil War musket balls were uncovered, with still hundreds more acres of farmland to scour. None of these or any further finds will be enjoyed bythe museum or its visitors and researchers. Aren’t these objects educational tools as well?

2) Must the museum rely on metal-detecting as the primary source of revenue for its three-year capital campaign? I recognize the estimated restoration cost is quite considerable for a small not-for-profit. But this partnership for the museum, whether short or long-term, is like striking a deal with the devil: supporting metal-detecting today may lead to treasure hunting tomorrow, and amateur detectorists may become bona fide looters in the future. On preselected privately owned farms in Southampton, one can treasure hunt as an ADT team member for just a nominal fee–non-members pay $100 for an 8-hour farm field hunt. Not surprisingly, expectations of walking away with hundreds of dollars in pre-Revolutionary War-era artifacts can be high. I think the museum must figure out a way to fund the restoration without compromising the quality of their cultural heritage resources, including land and artifacts, or their educational potential.

3) Mr. Edmonds describes the ADT as people “who like to uncover history.” The group’s Frequently Asked Questions page, though, makes it clear there is no guarantee of finding artifacts on any one metal-detecting outing–they are referred to as ‘natural’ hunts.

YOU: How can I achieve maximum success?

ADT: “DIG ALL repeatable signals…Our motto is find it, dig it, bag it, fill it and keep moving. Every good signal — you never know.”

Do those history buffs wielding metal-detectors know of their savage method for handling fragile artifacts? It is abusive on so many accounts. Ask any archaeologist and they will tell you wearing heavy work boots at a site destroys tiny objects and presses others deeper into the ground. Ask any conservator and they will tell you coppers and irons are vulnerable to agents of deterioration just as the planks of wood in the Sayre Barn’s walls. ADT members “seek out the thrill and potential of discovering once-in-a-lifetime relic finds.” In every case, the existence of these artifacts and the instance of their discovery will always be once-in-a-lifetime; it is unrepeatable and unique to the time and place. Common practice for metal-detectorists seems to be grab-and-run, non-discriminatory, unsustainable treasure hunting. Is this any way to seek a thrill? Oh, right, “Time is money,” advises ADT.

4) I’d like to point you to 4:38 of the promotional video (screenshot above), when one detectorist is seen moving across a tilled field at dusk. Really puts a face to the label “nighthawkers,” doesn’t it?

and 5) What happens if the museum does not raise the $326,000 needed for the Sayre Barn’s restoration? Perhaps someone with a stronger background in museum development and/or historic preservation could provide insight.

This entry was posted in American Revolution, archaeology, cultural conservation, cultural sustainability, culture, heritage, historic preservation, Long Island, looting, metal-detecting, Southampton Historical Society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Archaeological Resource Preservation: Museum-Archaeology Community and…Metal Detectorists??

  1. Good for you!But if you're going to go into battle against metal detecting/artefact hunting you'll be up against a vast army of people with a vested interest in saying you're completely mad. You'd probably find the same thing if you campaigned against burglary.Anyhow, anyone on your side of the pond that says the authorities, whether a museum, archaeologists or legislators should embrace metal detecting like has been done so successfully in Britain is unlikely to have looked very closely (or is deliberately wearing blinkers).Here are one or two contrary opinions

  2. Thanks for your comment! As you know, the U.S. has no treasure hunting/portable antiquities law, and as a result countless historical sites are being pillaged at the expense of knowledge and patrimony.I think this is a problem of grave concern to everyone who claims to have a love of the past. There's an observable gap in our shared historical narrative whenever an object is pulled from the ground, whether that's done systematically, clandestinely, or through metal-detecting.I hope you continue to read Culture in Peril. I'm sure there will be future posts that will interest you like this one!All the best,Nicholas MerkelsonCulture in Perilwww.cultureinperil.comTwitter @cultureinperil

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