Discussion Ethics of "digging"

KHyatt

Corporal
Joined
Jan 7, 2019
I’m relatively new to CWT and I’d be surprised if this topic hasn’t been covered before. Please forgive me for bringing this up again if that’s the case. Also, MAJOR caveat here: I am not trying to criticize anyone but just looking for some perspective. I promise.

A little personal background: I am a historical architect, currently employed by the National Park Service. I take a keen interest in affiliated professions such as history, archaeology, ethnography and anthropology. I have worked closely with archaeologists, both prior to joining the Park Service and during my tenure with the NPS. I believe that from the viewpoint of a professional archaeologist, battlefield detecting and digging would likely be considered a form of looting, not unlike digging pots from ancient ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest. I know that such is not allowed on Federal land, and I assume that responsible ACW collectors will only do so on private land with the owner's permission. However, my own philosophy is that doing so still robs current and future historians and the like of valuable data critical to a proper understanding of important events. For example, I learned several years ago about battlefield investigations at the site of the famed charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava; I believe it was a Discovery Channel or similar TV program. I recall that archaeologists were able to retrieve just a small number (maybe four or five) Russian canister fragments from a certain location that gave an important insight into how much impact the Russian artillery had on the charging British forces at a key point on the battlefield. Had these few fragments found there way into private collections beforehand, that critical understanding would have been lost.

I have a number of specific related questions:

1. When does collecting of this kind stop being an acceptable hobby and become something else? Would it be OK, for instance, to dig at Thermopylae? Masada? Hastings? Verdun? Normandy? Fallujah? If collecting from any of these places isn't OK (and I don't know that it isn't), why is it OK to dig at ACW sites?
2. Is this simply a question of property ownership, i.e. it's OK on private land?
3. If in the US it is a question of property ownership, should we consider something more like the laws in the UK where artifact hunters must cooperate with archaeologists?
4. Do ACW collectors have any informal "rules" (for want of a better word) about sharing finds with government agencies, universities, museums, etc.?

I genuinely would like to know how members of this forum feel about this particular hobby and if there have been concerns raised in the past. Again, I am NOT being judgmental. If I were on private land with permission and happened to come across a Minié ball, belt buckle or anything else of interest, I, too, would likely pick it up and go home happy with such a find. I have had just such opportunities elsewhere, on public land. Once I pocketed a nicely made projectile point while backpacking on remote BLM land, but I look back now on that incident with some regret. More recently, I found a very interesting 19th century rifle shell casing on the grounds of an old frontier US Army fort. I would like to have kept it, but I put it back and hid it in the bushes where I found it. I'm not perfect, but learning.

Anyway, what do y'all think?
 

Tom Hughes

First Sergeant
Joined
May 27, 2019
Location
Mississippi
Welcome to the forum!
Great questions about metal detecting.
As long as artifacts are retrieved on private property with permission then all is legal and ethical.
I do believe it to be important to document artifacts as to where they are found. Without documentation, the artifacts lose their contextual importance.
There needs to be a relationship between the diggers and professional archaeologists. We need each other and gain knowledge from each other. Many important artifacts and information has been gathered by diggers and shared with our communities, museums and professional archaeologists. Many books have been published by diggers that have given us the knowledge we have today of equipment usage during the ACW. Several of my pieces have been documented, Studied and published by archaeologists. We need each other to increase our knowledge and understanding of history.
Illegal digging has never been accepted as an okay practice in the metal detecting community.
Thanks for opening up this discussion. I hope others will chime in.
 

Waterloo50

Major
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 7, 2015
Location
England
3. If in the US it is a question of property ownership, should we consider something more like the laws in the UK where artifact hunters must cooperate with archaeologists?
Here in the UK, we have very strong rules/guidelines for metal detecting and treasure hunting, any find regardless of how insignificant they may appear belong to the crown/state until it’s archaeological importance and value has been ascertained, of course this depends greatly on the honesty of treasure hunters, nobody is overly worried if an everyday object is uncovered but many historic finds end up being sold on online auction sites and lost forever.
There is a code of conduct for those who use metal detectors and for the most part the code work very well. I live in an area where we have a number of Iron Age, Saxon and Roman sites, these areas belong to the National Trust, metal detecting in these areas is strictly forbidden and those caught without a permit can face hefty fines and imprisonment.
There are places where Brits can metal detect freely but these are normally places of little historical importance. In the past I have used a metal detector and I still go magnet fishing but I’ve a reasonably good grounding in archaeology because Ive studied the subject through my local college and university, I'm pretty clued up on what I need to do should I find something which I believe is significant, personally, I think metal detectors should only be sold to those who are willing to undergo some very basic training, something along the lines of training in how to record the location of finds using GPS along with training in how to record various important details, things like the depth of the find and it’s size. Maybe providing a metal detecting license for those willing to undergo basic training would help prevent the loss of so many artefacts, I think a licence would also help land owners, they’d probably be more willing to allow detectors onto their land if they knew that the people concerned were responsible individuals whom had invested time and effort into obtaining a metal detecting licence.
 

Taylin

Corporal
Joined
Oct 27, 2017
Location
Rolling hills of southern Indiana
When does collecting of this kind stop being an acceptable hobby and become something else? Would it be OK, for instance, to dig at Thermopylae? Masada? Hastings? Verdun? Normandy? Fallujah? If collecting from any of these places isn't OK (and I don't know that it isn't), why is it OK to dig at ACW sites?

It stops being acceptable wherever you find human remains or you don't fill your hole that you dug, which is also the only informal rule of metal detecting that I know.

You wouldn't want to relic hunt anywhere around Verdun considering the millions of love ordinance left over from WW1.
 

Waterloo50

Major
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 7, 2015
Location
England
Its fine in my book, the majority of archaeological finds through history have came from "amateurs". Its always been my understanding much of what we know came from the work of the "amateurs"
Back in 2009 a British metal detectorist found 4,000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold in a farmers field, he did everything right, he informed his local museum and they sent out a team of archaeologists, he got a pretty good reward, he spilt the six million pound reward with the farmer.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
I have a number of specific related questions:

1. When does collecting of this kind stop being an acceptable hobby and become something else? Would it be OK, for instance, to dig at Thermopylae? Masada? Hastings? Verdun? Normandy? Fallujah? If collecting from any of these places isn't OK (and I don't know that it isn't), why is it OK to dig at ACW sites?
2. Is this simply a question of property ownership, i.e. it's OK on private land?
3. If in the US it is a question of property ownership, should we consider something more like the laws in the UK where artifact hunters must cooperate with archaeologists?
4. Do ACW collectors have any informal "rules" (for want of a better word) about sharing finds with government agencies, universities, museums, etc.?
It is important to understand the big difference between loose finds and what you find in a proper archaeological dig.

Loose finds usually have a rather low historical value, since there is no context. Sure if its jewelry it have value as art and the gold can have value, but it will very very rarely tell us anything about history.
(but a number of loose finds in a area can sometimes lead to a real dig being done, tht find something important)

The moment we are talking a location of a known historical event, like a battlefield, we do get this contexts and this should also be banned, and usually is, if the area is protected.

But when you go into the ground everything you find is the same layer, will be from the same time period and we have a situation where the items might tell us something.


Fortunately most of the civilizes world ban any sort of digging. (by unauthorized amateurs that is)
Unfortunately some of areas in the world lack a working state to made sure this ban is followed.
Islamic state, was not only financed by oil, but also by massive digs. Where the items was sold on the black market to private collectors in both Europe and the US.

Here in Denmark looking for loose finds with a metal detector is legal outside of recognized historical sits.
But anything you find belong to the state. even If I find it in my garden when planting a tree.
(Jyske lov from 1241 is say that what belong to no one belong to the king... and that law have been including in all later danish lawsets)
To make sure that people hand it in, they hare paid the value of any metal, + a bonus on its historical value.

And a lot of finds have been made over the last few years, so there is usually a long delay... but some people have gotten big rewards from their finds.
 
Last edited:
Joined
Sep 17, 2011
Location
mo
IMO, a significant issue is land development, ie artifacts never to be found or studied due to being permanently buried under a parking lot or building. Of course, it is impossible to preserve every piece of land from the war.
Think it should be noted many modern artifacts(metals) only will exist a finite amount of time as they will rust away, somewhat the same with prehistoric artifacts, as more ground is developed, put into agricultural production the stone artifacts will become damaged or eventually broken up to be indistinguishable from the heavier and heavier equipment used....

The problem if one wanted to rely solely on "professionals" as they are limited in number, and then limited further by budgets as to what they can do, is 99.9% of all artifacts would be lost forever...............

I have no issue with some significent sites being protected, but only if they are actually going to be surveyed and dug, otherwise to just allow then to rust away makes little sense, as nothing of value will be discovered if they dont actually work what they wanted to protect.
 
Last edited:

Tom Hughes

First Sergeant
Joined
May 27, 2019
Location
Mississippi
IMO, a significant issue is land development, ie artifacts never to be found or studied due to being permanently buried under a parking lot or building. Of course, it is impossible to preserve every piece of land from the war.
You bring up a good point. I can't tell you how many construction areas I've been able to hunt over the years where lots of artifacts would've been lost. On many of these sites, archaeologists were required to go in and do assessments and found them to be insignificant. I consider this type of digging "salvage" archaeology because it's basically getting whatever you can get off a site before the heavy equipment, asphalt and concrete destroy it forever.
 

GunnerSixxCSA

Private
Joined
May 21, 2019
Location
Phoenix,Arizona
Great question....I live in the desert southwest and here we have lot of Indian ruins , Petroglyphs that are 15 miles from downtown Phoenix,old gold mining towns,gold mines...etc. and while I love exploring and seeing these areas....I refrain from taking anything except pictures so there are still there for my children and grandchildren to explore and see.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
IMO, a significant issue is land development, ie artifacts never to be found or studied due to being permanently buried under a parking lot or building. Of course, it is impossible to preserve every piece of land from the war.
That is why our law make it clear that before a construction project can be done the area have to be surveyed by an archaeologist.
And if there is anything to be found, then the building master have to pay for the dig.

The up side is the fact that nothing gets buried like you mention.

The down side is that 90% of all archaeology done in Denmark are done as emergency digs. And they are less well done (time pressure) and many are effectively a wast of time and money. Sure things are found, but not something that have any influence on our understanding of history.

Back when this system was put in place about 20 years ago, everyone, both museums and builders wanted a system where every builder paid x money pr. x area into a fund. And the museums could then decide on when to use the money.
But this that would effectively be a tax on building, and the politicians in power then had promised not to raise the tax-rate, this was refused. So no it is effectively a lottery.

But it is better than nothing.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
I've got a question for our European friends.
I've noticed lots of interest in metal detecting for World War II artifacts and the like.
Does the government have any say so over these type of artifacts?
It looks as if many end up in private collections.
Laws is different from country to country. (one area where the EU have done nothing to streamline the laws)
And in some it is up to the local state (germany), region or municipality...
So the rules varies a lot.
 

Tom Hughes

First Sergeant
Joined
May 27, 2019
Location
Mississippi
Laws is different from country to country. (one area where the EU have done nothing to streamline the laws)
And in some it is up to the local state (germany), region or municipality...
So the rules varies a lot.
I saw Youtube videos from people metal detecting in Belgium and it was very interesting. There is so much WWII stuff over there.
I have noticed that magnet fishing rivers, lakes, etc. is getting popular as well for relic hunters.
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
Think it should be noted many modern artifacts(metals) only will exist a finite amount of time as they will rust away, somewhat the same with prehistoric artifacts, as more ground is developed, put into agricultural production the stone artifacts will become damaged or eventually broken up to be indistinguishable from the heavier and heavier equipment used....

The problem if one wanted to rely solely on "professionals" as they are limited in number, and then limited further by budgets as to what they can do, is 99.9% of all artifacts would be lost forever...............

I have no issue with some significent sites being protected, but only if they are actually going to be surveyed and dug, otherwise to just allow then to rust away makes little sense, as nothing of value will be discovered if they dont actually work what they wanted to protect.
Also, a significant number of these areas are located on farmlands where the remaining artifacts have been tilled over for over a century and a half, thereby negating a true study of what happened based on artifact location.

Archaeology seems to be secular to more significant locations of historical value.
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
You bring up a good point. I can't tell you how many construction areas I've been able to hunt over the years where lots of artifacts would've been lost. On many of these sites, archaeologists were required to go in and do assessments and found them to be insignificant. I consider this type of digging "salvage" archaeology because it's basically getting whatever you can get off a site before the heavy equipment, asphalt and concrete destroy it forever.
I have also seen these areas. Rare ones lucky enough to have a small display or museum with recovered artifacts.
 

Lost Cause

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 19, 2014
That is why our law make it clear that before a construction project can be done the area have to be surveyed by an archaeologist.
And if there is anything to be found, then the building master have to pay for the dig.

The up side is the fact that nothing gets buried like you mention.

The down side is that 90% of all archaeology done in Denmark are done as emergency digs. And they are less well done (time pressure) and many are effectively a wast of time and money. Sure things are found, but not something that have any influence on our understanding of history.

Back when this system was put in place about 20 years ago, everyone, both museums and builders wanted a system where every builder paid x money pr. x area into a fund. And the museums could then decide on when to use the money.
But this that would effectively be a tax on building, and the politicians in power then had promised not to raise the tax-rate, this was refused. So no it is effectively a lottery.

But it is better than nothing.
Suppose that is better than nothing.
 
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