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.

Knowing What We Don’t Know: Challenging the Conventional Narrative in Search of Virginia’s Colonial Plantation Landscapes

For all that archaeologists and historians have learned from studying plantations in southeastern Virginia, there is a remarkable amount we still do not know. Much of this gap exists under the guise of things we think we know. Have any of us seen the archaeological footprint of a 17th-century tobacco press, corn-crib or stable? What about a dock or warehouse? Do we know where and how these buildings were built, how they “fit” within the plantation’s landscape? If we accept that plantations essentially operated as small towns, complete with systems of roads, quarters, agricultural buildings, fields, docks, and manor houses, and often complemented with mills, manufacturing enterprises, and formal gardens, how do we explain why a region so densely populated with historical archaeologists and so inherently connected with the history of colonial America has made so little progress in understanding the majority of this landscape?

Figure 1: The Manor home at Fairfield Plantation (courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society).

In 2000, we started the Fairfield Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to archaeological research and public outreach at Fairfield Plantation in Gloucester County on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Our first priority was a shovel test pit (STP) survey of nearly 60 acres of agricultural fields and forest surrounding the manor house ruins and adjacent Carters Creek, a tributary of the York River. The goal of the survey wasn’t to confront inadequacies in the study of plantation landscapes; we simply thought it was the best way to begin understanding this historic plantation that we knew nothing about. Over the subsequent 10 years of extensive sampling and focused excavations on the manor house, nearby quarters, and the spaces in between, these 1,500+ STPs remain the basis for interpreting this complex and constantly changing landscape, challenging us to rethink how we study plantations and their inhabitants. Shovel testing is not glamorous, but it is a quick and proven method for large-scale site study, looking more objectively at a landscape without preconceptions of the ‘best’ places to dig. We by no means planned to ignore the ruins of the 1694 manor house (Figure 1), an architectural enigma that had fascinated researchers since the early 20th century; we just assumed that anyone would begin with the large-scale survey if they could. But in searching for comparable, systematic plantation surveys in our region, we realized how rare it was for archaeologists to look beyond the 10 or 20 acres surrounding the manor house.

When archaeologists and historians study these landscapes – particularly how and why they changed over time – most fill in their knowledge gaps with primary documents from later periods projected backwards, with over-used generalizations from rare contemporary documents, and, most often, with assumptions based on little historical or archaeological evidence. These interpretations aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are often based on logical suppositions of how we, in the present, think those in the past would have acted. There is limited evidence to shed light on these  under studied elements of the plantation landscape, and, as a whole, scholars have had little interest in researching them. What we have found, though, is that at Fairfield Plantation (and perhaps elsewhere) these elements reveal the physical evidence for one of the most important periods in the region’s history: the transition from tobacco monoculture to mixed grains and the dramatic and contemporary reorganization of space (See Figure 2). Unfortunately, increasing suburbanization and large-scale development are severely limiting future opportunities to look into plantation landscapes and, with some notable exceptions, few archaeologists are stepping up to the challenge.

Figure 2: STP survey at Fairfield Plantation has demonstrated a changing landscape through four phases from the 17th through 19th centuries. (Figure courtesy of Fairfield Foundation).

Despite widespread development, southeastern Virginia maintains the historical association with plantations and agriculture that defined it for much of the last four centuries. This past is marketed as an invaluable asset to the local economy, and promulgated by many interested residents and descendants. Images of plantations across the tidewater are a vital part of the region’s local identity and the face it promotes to the rest of the state and country. We know that a large 18th-century brick building and terraced garden, surrounding agricultural fields, and occasional barn or slave quarter can each give solitary testimony to our region’s storied past, but these are inherently incomplete and misleading images of plantation life. We cannot expect historic house owners, house museums, and budget-constrained localities, dependent on limited tourist revenue and mired within the prevailing paradigms of plantation interpretation, to push a program of intensive study of the development of the region’s historic landscape. But we, as archaeologists, need to do a better job to confront the wide gaps in our knowledge, to look broadly at landscapes and time, to embrace the 19th century and not just the colonial, and to deal with misconceptions, prejudices, and myths harbored by the public about plantation history. It is our responsibility to better explore the development of these landscapes to fill in the gaps that assumptions have bridged for far too long before the continued development of our region leaves us with only relatively small historic islands surrounding the manor houses of dead rich white men and their families.

Don’t get us wrong – we strongly believe that historical archaeologists have contributed significantly to a greater understanding of the development of specific elements of plantations. We’d like to think that a more comprehensive view of the larger plantation acreage, beyond the manor house, the individual quarters, and the formal gardens, has been as much an essential priority for the many archaeology-focused organizations (private and public) in Virginia as it is for researchers of sugar plantations in Barbados, coffee plantations in Jamaica, or even provisioning plantations in New York and Massachusetts. But looking at the body of research in our region, we realized that despite having seen more projects on plantations than perhaps any other part of the world, systematic plantation surveys numbered exactly two: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and his retreat house, Poplar Forest. Various systematic surveys were undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s (Carter’s Grove in James City County and Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County to name two), but these and a handful of others were seldom written up, the data left inaccessible due to time and funding constraints. Other surveys are still trapped in the grey literature, the scope of work and research designs limited by the priorities of clients and the Section 106 process. Some of our most recognizable plantations, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, are already islands within a sea of development, but still look in the backyards of their neighbors to recover what they can (Pogue 1988; Pecoraro and Cole 2012). Despite recent trends focusing on plantation gardens and the yard areas around domestic spaces, there remains a very real preference by many archaeologists to focus on individual buildings and activity areas associated with abundant material culture and architectural evidence, because these permit a level of detailed interpretation that seems to pay more dividends than digging several hundred STPs or studying difficult to recognize extant landscape features. In a time of limited funding and a growing curation crisis of previously excavated materials, we’d like to think an approach that better serves preservation of cultural landscapes through their holistic (yet less obtrusive) study would appeal to the community of historical archaeologists.

We’re uncertain whether most scholars in our region will expand their gaze beyond the immediate surroundings of a plantation’s remarkable manor homes, nearby ancillary buildings, and quarters, yet we contend that this expansion is absolutely necessary. While these plantation elements are legitimate research foci, and will always provide new information, they did not exist in a vacuum. To know the manor house we must know the quarter; to understand the gardens we must investigate the fields. How can we expect to decipher how warehouses, docks, and barns functioned within the landscape without mapping the roads, fencelines, and field divisions? Do we understand the complicated interplay between plantation and town, or between manor house, court house, and house of worship? Are we satisfied assuming the public, and funding organizations, believe our time is best spent on the search for “cool things” rather than “cool ideas”? Or do we engage with modern residents and descendant communities to add depth and nuance to our research, confront misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the past, and demonstrate the full potential of the discipline to contribute to a better understanding of the past? As recent blog posts on this site have proven, historical archaeologists of other regions have succeeded in these endeavors. The realization that there is much that we do not know, concerning subjects long thought already decided or relatively unimportant, will lead to a broader challenging of the historical narrative and a greater role for historical archaeology in understanding our shared pasts.

Update 2/27/2012

We are encouraged by the response to the blog we posted on February 22nd and are happy to report that, because of this post, we have been contacted regarding additional plantation surveys in our region beyond those we listed. These include the 500-acres surrounding Mount Vernon, the National Park Service’s acreage at George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, the Lee family plantation at Stratford Hall, and the plantations on Jamestown Island. Many of these are used as internal planning documents, influencing excavation strategies and site development.  Others, by necessity, remain out of public access due to concerns over site preservation. This is not to say that the authors are not encouraging of their use in research by those studying and interpreting plantation landscapes, and many would be happy to share this data.  Ultimately, increased interest in looking beyond the plantation’s core will lead to the greater exchange of archaeological data in addition to refocusing the priorities of plantation studies. If you know of other plantation surveys, please do not hesitate to share them in the comment field or contact us separately.

References Cited

  • Pogue, Dennis J.
    • 1988 Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon 1931 – 1987, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Archaeology Department, File Report #1.
  • Pecoraro, Luke and Bill Cole
    • 2012 Reanalysis of Two Features at the Potomac Overlook Site, 44FX885, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Archaeology Department.