Every once in a while someone approaches staff at the Morrison County Historical Society asking if we can recommend places to use a metal detector. We seriously cringe at this question and want to let those of you keen on metal detectors know why.
In general, using a metal detector to locate something beneath the surface of the ground means digging up whatever the detector indicates … because what would be the point of using the detector otherwise? If the site has historic significance, disturbing the earth also disturbs other evidence that might put that object into context. Once a site is disturbed, there is no putting it back together again. Even archaeologists, who carefully excavate sites, realize that the sites they excavate can never be recreated as they were, which is why they take care to photograph and draw items as they find them in the ground. Or they use new technologies, such as remote sensing, which allow them to keep the site intact.
The best analogy I can make concerning disturbing an archaeological site is in comparing it to a crime scene. Most of us have seen movies and television shows that feature crime scene investigators wearing gloves, taking pics, and in general having conniptions if it appears as though evidence at a murder scene is about to be compromised. If evidence is lost at a crime scene, the murderer may walk free. If evidence at an archaeological site (whether it’s a recognized site or not) is lost, the full story of the past may walk away from us, never to be retrieved.
Property rights must also be considered when it comes to using a metal detector. According to state law, public land can only be excavated after the State Archaeologist has issued a license for such purpose. Further, these licenses are only issued to professional archaeologists. Historical societies are not going to recommend public sites for you to use your metal detector on because doing so would be encouraging you to break the law.
The law does not say anything about private land, however it’s not uncommon to find protected historic and archaeological sites on private property. The other issue with private land is that you have to have permission to use a metal detector from the land owner.
You might be wondering about old garbage dump sites and whether they have any archaeological significance. They certainly do! Much of archaeology concerning long-ago cultures is based on trash dumps because that’s what people left behind in sufficient quantity, allowing for later study.
When it comes to using a metal detector, I urge you to proceed with caution for all of the above reasons. The three links below will provide further information on doing archaeological work in Minnesota.
Minnesota Office of State Archaeologist: http://www.osa.admin.state.mn.us/
Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office: https://mn.gov/admin/shpo/
From Site to Story: Doing Archaeology in Minnesota:
If you’re still interested in digging up the past using a metal detector, consider taking classes on archaeology so you gain a sense of what’s involved before accidentally destroying a site of significance. I provide this advice based on the experience of our past Archivist. He unearthed a site in Morrison County as a boy that is now on the State Archaeologist’s list of protected sites. After becoming an Archivist/Historian, he realized what he had inadvertently erased.