Why Historical Orgs Don’t Like Metal Detectors

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.

10 Replies to “Why Historical Orgs Don’t Like Metal Detectors”

  1. I would like to see an article about how Metal Detectorists help Archealogists find historical sites. I can think of one recently that made national news. “Huge Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found”. Instead of criticizing metal detecting, maybe you should try to work hand-hand with them through a local club to help unearth our precious History.

  2. Good point, TwistedVintage. Metal detectors can be used to help locate archaeological sites, but typically when people tell us they want to use a metal detector on a historic site, they aren’t trained in archaeological techniques and don’t realize that their digging around permanently damages sites.

    Archaeologists regularly work with remote sensing, which is a method of looking at what’s underneath the surface of the earth using a variety of techniques. Remote sensing is explained in more depth on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remote_sensing).

    Incidentally, most local historical societies are under-funded and under-staffed, so we don’t have archaeologists at our beck-and-call. While many of us understand the importance of archaeological sites, we don’t necessarily have the expertise needed to evaluate a site from this standpoint. That’s why we suggest people turn to the resources I mentioned in this blog post.

  3. most all sites of importants have been stumbled upon by people by blind luck. most people who use a metal detector are smart enough to know if they stumbled on a historic fine. your laws only hold back historic fines from being discovered. wake up!!!!!!!

  4. mchs you refer to information gained from Wiki? Really? What institution of higher learning allows Wiki to be referenced? I would be interested in knowing so I could avoid sending my kids there. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been cautioned by Military Instructors as well as College Professors to NOT use that site as anyone can become a member an post whatever suits them.

  5. Dave – We are well aware of the complaints about the accuracy of Wikipedia. When we refer to it, we do so for general items (like the remote sensing article I referred to above) or use it as a starting point for further research. With any research resource, whether Wikipedia or newspapers or printed encyclopedias or books, we try to verify any claims with other source material. Good Wikipedia pages will have a list of sources at the bottom showing just where the information came from. It behooves researchers to go back to those original sources.

    As it turns out, Wikipedia, for all the bad press it gets for inaccuracy, is not much more inaccurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    CNET: Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica: http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038_3-5997332.html

    I’d love to see a comparison of the accuracy of Wikipedia stacked up against government records, which, through the course of museum work, I’ve seen mistakes in more often than I’d like.

    It’d be great if everything we read online and off was 100% accurate, but that is rarely the case. There is a book on file in the collections of MCHS called “The Land Called Morrison” that is riddled with errors. There are no footnotes or bibliography to show where the author got his information. When researchers want to use this book … and they most assuredly want to use it … we have to warn them to check and double check the “facts” presented.

    Such is the case with Wikipedia.

    While anyone can contribute to Wikipedia and there have been a number of high-profile shenanigans with contributors purposely messing around with pages, on the flip side, there are also highly knowledgeable people contributing to Wikipedia, including museum workers and college professors.

    Techdirt: Professor Gets Tenure With The Help Of His Wikipedia Contributions: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110407/01474013809/professor-gets-tenure-with-help-his-wikipedia-contributions.shtml

    We’ll keep using Wikipedia for limited purposes and continue to verify, verify, verify with other sources for research articles. This is what we suggest for researchers using any resource, whether Wikipedia or one of the many sources we have in our collections.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

    1. In support of your comments of comparative accuracy, in my own experience I find mistakes everywhere. I am a Wikipedia editor and trust me, if there is a hint of inaccuracy or discrepancy, it is jumped on and called out (usually – there are always exceptions – we are only human!)

  6. Mary:

    Why do you allow comments done under pseudonyms? I like the approach of MinnPost, which requires *real* names. Too often folks make insipid or downright nasty comments hiding behind a pen name.

    Sure, the Federalist Papers were published under a pseudonym, but hey, these are blog comments 🙂

    Just my .02.


  7. Hi, Mike. While our blog commenters can use pseudonyms as far as the display name, they have to enter a valid email address in order to post a comment, so we do have a way to track them down. We also get notice of each comment before we let it go live on the blog, so we can delete spammy comments or ones that make threats. While the comments above contain elements that border on the trollish, they also make valid points that deserve further conversation in the museum field. Hopefully additional comments to this post will be less antagonistic. If they continue in a vein of attack, we’ll shut down comments on the post.

    Thanks for pointing out the Federalist Papers were written under a pseudonym. I wonder if the Founding Fathers were tempted to make stuff up while writing them. 😉



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