National Geographic’s Diggers Redux

In my previous blog I reported on a meeting I attended at the National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington to discuss the problems with their reality show, Diggers (not to be confused with Spike’s American Diggers) You remember Diggers, don’t you? Two metal detectorists, “King” George Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor, would travel the country looking for treasure, competing to see who find the most loot at historic sites. Needless to say, the profession howled (read SHA’s response here) and National Geographic heard us. They pulled the show until they could get a sense of how to address the concerns of outraged archaeologists.

Two major points came out of the meeting. The archaeologists demanded an ethical show and National Geographic said they had to make money on it. To be ethical there were a couple of basic concepts that could not be breached. There needed to be an explicit concern for recording the context in which the artifacts were found and those artifacts could not be sold. National Geographic, on the other hand, could not produce a show that was a money loser. So, is their a solution that could satisfy both parties?

National Geographic is rethinking their show to address our concerns. In a letter to the profession the show’s producers propose the following:

• We will have a local supervising archaeologist during all metal detecting and digging.
• We will have a full-time crew position for a person with an archaeology degree and field experience; that person will keep a detailed catalog / map of every item we find, process the artifacts in the proper way, and see that whatever person or organization that takes ultimate possession of the artifacts is also provided with the documentation.
• At the end of each episode, we will meet with an archaeologist to discuss the historical importance of the items, and to place them in their historical context.
• We will not place a monetary value on the objects we find. Instead, we will focus on the “historic value” of the items, and the stories they can tell.
• Throughout each episode, we will feature “responsible metal detecting tips,” about laws pertaining to metal detecting: where it’s not okay to go, what to do if you stumble across an important archaeological site, etc. The tips relate directly to the content of each episode, so they will vary widely. These will help to actively discourage illegal relic hunting/looting, and stress that respect is the key to metal detecting responsibly: respect of the law, of the landowner, and of our common cultural heritage.

Sounds good, but they need our help to make it happen. They would like to partner with some ongoing digs and have their detectorists assist in the recovery of artifacts. I know, I know! I saw the shows and the thought of having those two silly men on my site is daunting and some projects are more suited to metal detecting than others. But think of the public you would reach. These are the folks that might normally be out pothunting sites rather than preserving them. I think we need to give Nat Geo a chance to make good on their early blunder, and they HAVE been great supporters of archaeology. So, if you have a site that you think might benefit from their involvement, contact Cory Adcock-Camp at

And remember, no one learns if no one’s listening.

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.

Digging our own graves? A suggested focus for introducing archaeology to new audiences

 As an Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, I often get to work with elementary school students, bringing archaeology activities and presentations into classrooms all over northeast Florida.  I see this as a great privilege—I love helping

Students classify artifacts found on a site-on-a-tarp activity. (Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network)

students discover a new lens through which to view the world and the past.  However, I also recognize that with that great joy comes a serious responsibility: I must strive to spark imagination and interest, but also convey a need to cherish and protect archaeological resources.  My end goal in working with students, or anyone newly interested in our field, is not simply to fascinate them with amazing trinkets that can be pulled from the past into the present at the blade of a shovel.  I strive to help them become invested in archaeological resources on the whole as a means of understanding people and cultures of the past.

I have limited time in any given classroom, typically an hour or less to imbue students with knowledge and concern for cultural resources.  In that time I endeavor to introduce principles of archaeology, promote some understanding of methods and resources, and foster a value for past and the way archaeologists study it.  This is no small task, and I certainly have adapted my strategies and script in response to feedback from students.  Over time, I have found one activity to be ideally suited to this purpose, particularly when I only get to see a class once.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"Shovel testing" on a pb and j site. (Courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

This may not be anything brand new to you.  I know the lesson has been around for a while, and I certainly don’t claim it as my own invention.  PB&J works for my purposes because it lets me focus on those priorities listed above.  Artifact show-and-tells may be the rock star of public archaeology from an outsider’s perspective.  But to me leading with artifacts, from a preservation and protection standpoint, is leading with the chin.  Peanut butter and jelly lets me lead with the dirt.

A fully excavated pb&j revealing layers of occupation, features, stratigraphy, & artifacts. Photo courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

For those who have no idea what PB&J can do aside from providing quick nutrition in the field, it’s also a lesson in which participants make, then systematically excavate, a sandwich.  The lesson can be complex, but may be simplified if necessary; the original version suggests three layers of bread, raisins arranged in the middle as fire pits, and small candies for artifacts. When the sandwich is complete, students become archaeologists and apply field methods, if methods writ small.  They conduct a visual “walking” survey, shovel testing (with straws), and finally open up a “unit,” selecting a quadrant of the sandwich based on shovel tests and removing the top layer of bread—our top soil.  The lesson ends with a brilliant analogy, likening unmitigated construction and looting with putting the sandwich in a blender.

I don’t mean simply to sing the praises of PB&J, but to encourage deliberation on how we strive to expose the public,school-age or older, to archaeology and preservation.  Certainly, activities that engage hands as well as minds have proven effective for creating thorough engagement with the material and memorable understanding.  We have even used this lesson in teacher workshops to provide a baseline of understanding, and find that adults are as enthralled with the process as children, regardless of how sticky it may get.

Let's not kid ourselves--grownups LOVE to learn by playing, just like kids. (Courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

Fun and sugar highs aside, it is critical to consider what we give the public to hold onto about the discipline of archaeology.  If we lead with our chin, sites and resources will continue to take a beating.  However, if we find ways to share the wonder of the soil itself, we provide a more accurate understanding of cultural resources and have a better chance of fostering concern for sites as a whole.  We may tell ourselves that it’s tough to understand, that the lay public will be disinterested, but I don’t find that entirely fair.  If we can enjoy the secrets in the soil, why couldn’t others?

Get the original PB&J lesson here, or find FPAN’s Florida-friendly version here.

What types of lessons do you use for teaching students about archaeological methods? How do you encourage the public to become good stewards of the past? Have you used the PB&J lesson?