About Matthew Reeves

Matthew Reeves has been the Director of Archaeology at Montpelier since 2000. In his work at Montpelier he has focused on plantation, Civil War, and post-emancipation sites with an emphasis on public archaeology. He is particularly interested in public outreach both in terms of the descendent community, but in the public in general to make archaeology more accessible. Previous to Montpelier, he worked on plantation sites in Maryland, Virginia, and sites in New York. He completed his doctorate work at Syracuse University where he focused on excavating early 19th century slave settlements in Jamaica.

Open Minds, Clearer Signals – Metal Detectorist and Archaeologist Cooperation Takes Another Step

The following post discusses the first metal detecting workshop open to the general public, directed by the Montpelier Archaeology Department this Spring. The post was co-authored by Dr. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at the Montpelier Foundation, and Scott Clark, a member of the metal detecting community and participant in the 2013 workshop. Mr. Clark lives in Kentucky and holds a BS in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University, and blogs about metal detecting at http://detecting.us, where you can read about his experience at the workshop. You can read about Dr. Reeves’ previous metal detecting workshop with metal detector dealers from Minelab here.

Participants Peter Roder and Krisztina Roder surveying the front lawn of Montpelier with archaeologist Samantha Henderson. This survey is intended to locate the early 19th century carriage road as well as other sites located on the front lawn for future preservation and study.

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.

While these outcomes are realized and form the backbone of the week’s activities, this is not all that we are after with these programs. One of the most important and inspirational outcomes is the dialogue from two different groups teaming up together to engage in scientific research. One of the most important part of the week’s events was getting across not just the “how” of archaeological survey, but the “why”…and it is the why that some of the most challenging and inspiring conversations developed.

As the week progressed, provenance and context began to frame conversations which had previously been artifact-centric. It became clearer that once detectorists have insight into the broader hypothesis of a project, the sooner they became immensely productive allies in achieving its goals. They expressed the importance of feeling the years they’ve spent mastering their hobby was being respected by the professionals beyond only a field technician’s role.

Participant Fred Delise showing off nail he recovered from an 18th century activity area. Participants learn how to identify nails and their significance for dating and interpreting archaeological sites.

The knowledge flowed many directions. The detectorists’ expressions when presented the full richness of nail dating techniques was equaled only by those of the archaeologists as they learned how dating shotgun shells could tell you when a wooded area was likely open fields! When the excitement of archaeology is transferred to a group labeled as pot hunters and looters, the fallacy of a one-size fits all for metal-detectorist community is revealed.

Participant Jim Wirth excavating a metal detector hit accompanied by archaeologist Jimena Resendiz during survey of a wooded portion of the Montpelier property. While this particular woodlot was originally intended for a selective forestry cut, the number of archaeological sites we have located through metal detector survey has marked it for preservation.

The detectorists had come to Montpelier to better understand the methodology and language of archaeology and, in many cases to improve dialogue with professionals at home. The most common question asked was how they could get local archaeologists to consider employing metal detecting at their site. This was not so that the detectorists could extract artifacts, but so that they could meaningfully contribute in site discovery, survey and other systematic examinations of sites. In essence, these folks want to become engaged with the archaeology groups, they just don’t know how.

What the Montpelier team hopes to achieve through its programs is to show how metal detectorists and archaeologists can begin to work together in a meaningful manner and through a range of scientific endevours. Metal detector technology combined with an intimate knowledge of the machine from decades of use is a very powerful tool that can be harnessed as a reliable remote sensing technique. When engaged as a member of a research team, metal detectorists learn what makes archaeologist so passionate about recovering artifacts in their proper context—and studying the wider range of material culture from nails to bricks.

By bringing more metal detectorists into the archaeology fold, the profession can begin to take advantage of the millions of detectorists who spend weekends and holidays researching history, locating sites and scanning the ground with a metal detector.

While archaeologists will likely not be able to engage the detectorists who see metal detecting as a way to locate and sell artifacts (with these folks being in the minority of the detecting community), engagement with the others, while preserving research schemes, could bring important benefits. For example, a new generation of detectorists may be ready to go “digital” while participating on archaeological sites as we saw with the group at Montpelier. These detectorists were happy to do “virtual artifact collecting” via their digital camera to be later shared with friends online rather than take the objects home. Some took photos in-situ, others while holding them, and some during preservation in the lab. Excitement grew while context was preserved, and the story (of the find, as well as the archaeological effort) was spread to their network of friends.

During the program, participants spend a day at the archaeology site to learn how we recover artifacts. In this shot, archaeologist Jeanne Higbee trains Tom Ratel in the art of unit excavation. This particular site is a quarter for field slaves that we are excavating as part of a four-year NEH study of the enslaved community at Montpelier. This site was defined by metal detector surveys conducted during a similar program held in 2012.

This line of interaction goes much further than moralizing to metal detectorists regarding the evils of using a shovel to dig artifacts from a site with no regard for provenience. Archaeologists need to communicate to metal detectorists the value of their work and how it can be used to expand understanding of the past in a relevant and meaningful manner. This means stepping outside of peer-based discussions and engaging with the public. This is especially relevant for historical archaeologists as our sites often have no visible set of cultural resources that that the public will witness as being disturbed by sticking a shovel into the ground, and even if they saw the artifacts, the items recovered would not present a convincing case for preservation for the untrained eye. Archaeologists have the obligation to show the relevance of the discipline in our understanding the larger narrative of history.

With metal detectorists, archaeologists have a potential set of allies (and even advocates) who are already share a passion for searching for ephemeral sites and using the finds to connect with the past. When presented with the range of information via a systematic study of a site, rather than being unimpressed, metal detectorists are brimming with questions and interest, uncovering adjacent possibilities that can lead to innovations we may not have yet imagined.

Finding common ground between detectorists and archaeologists also has the potential side effect of archaeology gaining more resonance with the general public. Detectorists come from all walks of life and all ages and are present in just about every community. The public (including lawmakers and, often, reporters) are often captivated by the individual artifacts we (both archaeologists and metal detectorists) uncover – and perceive it as saving history. Associations and understanding between our groups could spread the “how” and “why” of what we do even further, clarifying how there’s more to save than just artifacts, but the sites from which they came. When we can do this effectively, our discipline and quest for preservation of sites will begin to be taken more seriously by legislators and the general public.

Interested in doing your own workshop at your institution? Dr. Reeves has made his workshop manual available for download here. 

This project was held in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see their blog on this program) and Minelab Americas.

The Montpelier/Minelab Experiment: An Archaeological Metal Detector Training Course

In March 2012, 12 metal detectorists were invited to James Madison’s Montpelier to attend a week-long metal detecting program to learn how archaeologists and the metal detector community can work together to more proactively to preserve sites. In the past, archaeologists and metal detectorists have worked together to make discoveries at battlefields and other historic sites such as the work conducted by Doug Scott at the Little Bighorn and at Manassas National Battlefield under my direction. We entered into this program with a full understanding of how metal detectorists can be employed for archaeological research on historic sites. The goal for this public-outreach program was to establish a rigorous curriculum in which the goals of site sustainability were laid out and metal detectorists were actively engaged and educated about this process. As such, we taught metal detectorists much more than just how metal detectors can be carefully used to recover artifacts at sites, but the why behind the rigorous methodology employed in this process. At the end of the week, we had a dozen metal detectorists who not only understood how site integrity can be attained through the use of metal detectors, but they were devising new techniques for how this process could be improved. In short, they gained an appreciation for archaeology, and the discipline of archaeology gained a new set of allies for what archaeology can offer in regard to discovering history.

An important aspect of this program was all 12 participants were metal detector dealers. As dealers, all participants are respected leaders from across the country who are linked into a network of metal detectorists. Bringing them to a better understanding of the shared goals and values between archaeologists and metal detectorists secures a foothold into the much larger hobby community. What discussions with these dealers revealed was that interest in metal detecting is growing, not shrinking. They all agreed that designing programs that give detectorists an entry into archaeology was essential for a more productive interaction between the two groups. As such, we designed this week-long program as a pilot project to see how this interaction could take place. Instrumental in organizing this group of dealers was Minelab Americas, a leading developer of metal detector technology. Minelab has been involved in several organized efforts to join archaeologists with the metal detector community for public outreach and education.

Participant Ron DeGhetto scans the ground for metal artifacts while staff archaeologist Matt Greer records historic artifacts uncovered in the woods survey.

During this week-long program, metal detector enthusiasts worked side-by-side with archaeologists in discovering sites and recovering information to aid in the interpretation of sites. All the while, detectorists were trained through lectures, readings, and practical exercises on how the systematic use of metal detectors can aide in site preservation. Lectures were carefully tailored to reinforce concepts that metal detectorists would encounter during the hands-on exercises in the field. The evidence for metal detectorists engaging with archaeological concepts was evident in field exercises—metal detector participants used the utmost caution in excavating hits and quickly understood the concept of using a grid to record metal detector finds. In turn, archaeologists experienced how to work with detectorists in a team environment that fostered learning, preservation, and the thrill of discovery. The fieldwork was where these seasoned detectorists saw archaeology providing a whole new approach towards the discovery of historic artifacts.

Metal detector participant Ransom Hundley marking metal detector hits while staff archaeologists Kira Runkle records number of hits per square at the quarter for field slaves.

In the course of the week’s program, the detectorists were exposed to two very different use of metal detectors—the first for site discovery and the second for defining a site. Site discovery took place in wooded portions of the property that had never been systematically surveyed. By gridding the woods into 20 meter squares, each area was carefully scanned with detectors and artifacts sampled. Metal targets were excavated based on protocols such as depth, density, and signal strength. In this survey, archaeologists depended on detectorists’ expertise on reading signals while detectorists communicated the characteristics of the hits to allow archaeologists to determine how to sample. This process allowed some 20 acres to be surveyed in two days, and three sites (two early 19th century slave quarters and one barn/work area) were discovered. In addition, archaeologists and detectorists were able to determine which areas were potentially plowed in the early 19th century based on horse shoes and plow parts.
In the second portion of the program, a known site in an open field was gridded off into 10 foot squares and all signals in each square were marked with skewer sticks. Densities across the site were plotted in this manner and then selective squares were sampled to determine the historic context for the concentrations. In the process, three clusters of hits were deciphered across a  300 ft x 300 ft area that suggested the presence of several house areas within this early 19th century slave settlement. In this exercise, as in the woods, metal detectorists were quick to understand the value of the machine as both a non-invasive remote sensing device and as a tool to quickly locate and define hits that could be sampled without disturbing deep stratigraphy.

Participant Van Boone showing off a t-headed wrought nail found during woods survey.

Throughout the week, both detectorists and archaeologists attended lectures geared towards demystifying the rationale behind field techniques employed during the week’s surveys. Topics such as recovery of information from features was combined with how signal depth could be used to avoid damage to features during survey and how recovery of a wide array of artifacts (including the ubiquitous nail) could aid in the interpretation of sites. Throughout the lectures, emphasis was placed on how metal detecting can actually enhance archaeologists’ ability to preserve site integrity. Participants walked away with not only a better understanding of how particular archaeological methods can benefit from metal detector surveys of a site, but also how care in recovery during metal detecting could enhance the enjoyment of the hobby. Both groups exchanged information on sets of artifacts that were important to each others’ discipline—archaeologists learned more about specific functions of diagnostic metal items in our collection, and metal detectorists came away with a better understanding of the variety and range of nails found at sites. Throughout the process, open dialogue was the main means of sharing information between the two groups—something that does not often happen between archaeologists and metal detectorists. This dialogue allowed us to share with participants how our methods led to data preservation both during survey and excavation of sites.

In the end, the goal of the program was to foster a mutual respect between the staff archaeologists and the metal detector participants. This goal was met through camaraderie built from shared discoveries, learning, and hard work. Metal detectorists left the program with the prospect of seeing how their hobby could be extended into the realm of archaeology, and archaeologists left with an understanding of how the knowledge base and skills held within the metal detecting community could be used for site survey. Telling were the exchanges of gifts between the groups—archaeologists providing metal detectorists with trowels, and metal detectorists bestowing pin pointers (electronic devices used to pinpoint the location of metallic objects in a small hole). The exchange of information, techniques, technology, and skills allowed for open discussion of views that each held of the other and a better sense of common ground between the two groups.

Proof for the success of this outreach program came both during and in the days following the program. Discussion forums featured detectorists writing in about the program, twitter pages were active with questions regarding the program, and several blogs featured the highlights of the expedition. In the days following the program, several dealers featured the highlights of their interaction on their company webpages, with one even donating a percentage of his monthly profits to furthering the preservation of archaeological sites at Montpelier, a donation that will be matched by Minelab Americas. Metal detector participants were encouraged to use the program as an entry point for contacting local archaeologists in their region to offer their services for identification and definition of sites. By learning a common language that archaeologists would understand (gridded systematic survey, sampling, mapping) we hope that these participants will be better able to make contact with archaeologists to offer their services. We hope that this exchange can continue and foster more discussions concerning our common goals to preserve sites and discover information about the past.

Have you, as an archaeologist, used metal detector technology in your survey work? Have you worked with metal detector enthusiasts in conducting these surveys? If so, what types of engagement have you used? What were some of the challenges you faced in establishing such programs, or what hurdles are keeping you from establishing one now?

Interested in developing your own training course? Dr. Reeves has made the Information Packet from his project available online. You can also see the video below that discusses Montpelier’s longtime relationship with metal detector technician, Lance Crosby.