National GeographicNat Geo Wild


An Overview of the Complicated History and Current State of Metal Detecting

By Patrick J. Kiger

Published Sept. 13, 2012 Last year, in Jupiter, FL, a man named William Mooney ran a metal detector over a spot near a county waterfront park and pinpointed the location of what, if his suspicions were true, was every amateur treasurer hunter’s dream.  In an email, Mooney told county officials that he was “at least 90 percent sure” that he had found a chest of riches, possibly salvaged by survivors of a wrecked Spanish treasure ship and buried for safekeeping hundreds of years ago. 

Mooney made what seemed like a generous offer: In exchange for permission to dig a small hole and retrieve the underground object, he would give the county 75 percent of the treasure. But after making the requisite jokes about Captain Jack Sparrow and how Spanish gold might help the government to meet its budget, officials heeded objections from the local historical society, which was aghast at the notion of letting a treasure hunter excavate in the vicinity of an ancient Indian mound in the park.  Beyond that, officials also decided to ban Mooney and other amateur treasure hunters in the future.  “Anyone with a metal detector can think they have found treasure,” county administrator Robert Weisman told the Sun-Sentinel, a local newspaper.  “…We should not encourage this activity on county lands.”

That’s the conundrum raised by metal-detecting buffs, AKA “diggers,” a small but fervent subculture of mostly amateur hobbyists who use electronic equipment to unearth the detritus of civilizations past and present. Archaeologists and preservationists tend to view diggers with suspicion, fearing that they’ll damage historical sites and possibly make off with artifacts that should be in museums. But diggers tend to see themselves as homespun scholars, who despite a lack of credentials have a genuine, passionate interest in resurrecting insightful traces of history, and are willing to put in the time and effort to locate it and dig it up.

Charles Ewen, an archaeology professor at East Carolina University and president-elect of the Society for Historical Archaeology, sees the conflict as a basic one. “The biggest point that separates the [metal-detecting] collector from the archaeologist is context,” he explains. “To us, it’s not what you find, it’s what you can find out.” Jeffrey Altschul, who recently was elected to head another major organization, the Society for American Archaeology, warns that when metal detector users get a hit, pretty soon, a site is turned into “a prairie dog town of holes.” As he and other professionals see it, “there’s a potential to destroy information.”

Metal-detecting enthusiasts think they’ve gotten a bad rap. “We are not all old men in black socks and sandals on the beaches of Florida, or looters and/or grave robbers,” says Montanan Tim Saylor, who along with George Wyant stars in the National Geographic Channel series Diggers. The object of the hobby isn’t to find riches, he explains. “We always go out looking for old coins because that is our favorite thing to find, but it’s always the other weird items that come out of the ground—guns, rings, unique jewelry, tools, and so on—that are the most interesting and surprising.”

“Unfortunately, the archaeological community, who we have always tried to work with, has really cast a bad light on metal detecting,” Butch Holcombe, publisher of American Digger magazine, told a newspaper interviewer recently. “They’ve called us ‘looters’ and ‘pot hunters’ and ‘thieves of history.’ And all of that is not so.”

As a recent Wired article on metal detecting detailed, enthusiasts often harvest and amass vast hordes of discarded or lost items, ranging from contemporary trash—broken watches, children’s lost Matchbox cars, medallions from cremations—to intriguing and sometimes valuable historical relics. Detector-wielding hobbyists who comb San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, have pulled up brass buttons and even gold pieces dating back to the city’s infamous 1906 Earthquake, items left behind by the quarter-million or so people who were temporarily housed in shelters in the park after their homes were destroyed by the quake.

But occasionally, such amateur scavengers also manage to make significant archaeological discoveries, or uncover finds worth princely sums. In northern England last year, a metal-detecting buff named Darren Webster was exploring a field near his home during a lunch break and unearthed a lead container filled with silver coins and jewelry that dated back to the Viking rulers of the region, more than 1,000 years ago. The discovery was hailed by the British Museum as one of the most important Viking archaeological finds ever.

After the metal detector was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 1800s, it didn’t take long for treasure hunters to start using the technology to search for valuable stuff in the ground. But the hobby of metal detecting seems to have mushroomed in popularity after World War II, when Kellyco, a leading supplier of metal-detecting gear, began marketing devices based upon military gear used to sweep minefields. 

Old-school diggers didn’t have any qualms about venturing onto major historic sites such as Gettysburg, a practice that’s now illegal under federal law. A 1960 Associated Press story describes the exploits of “relic hunter” N.E. Warinner, who made a name for himself by using a metal detector to search old Civil War battlefields for cannon balls, uniform buttons and buckles, swords, pistols and other artifacts. 

In recent years, perhaps spurred by rising gold prices, amateur treasure hunting seems to be gaining in popularity. One retailer, Kellyco. Inc. of Winter Springs, FL, has seen sales rise by 63 percent since 2005.

 "No other hobby I can think of has a return like this," Ed Burke, vice president of the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archaeology Clubs, recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You can pay $800 for a metal detector and make up the return on it the first time, if you're lucky."

Metal-detecting buff Saylor is a bit more of a realist. “By the time you pay for gas, food, batteries, and gear for a hunt, you almost always lose money that day,” he admits. “If you are in it for the cash, then you should find another hobby or else you are bound to be disappointed.” To Saylor, the payoff is finding a lost piece of the past, such as a 1933 World’s Fair token—even if that item is only worth a few dollars on eBay.

But the stereotype of metal-detecting buffs as treasure hunters, uninterested in history, helps explain why they aren’t especially popular with professional archaeologists. 

 “The real importance of an archaeological site is context—not just the artifacts themselves, but where they are found,” explains Utah-based archaeologist Mike Polk. “That’s what helps give us the story of what was going on at that site long ago. When you use a metal detector to find concentrations of artifacts, and then you excavate with a shovel in a non-controlled way—well, they may be well-intentioned, but they have great potential to destroy a site.”

Whether or not that is a fair characterization of the pastime, metal-detecting enthusiasts nevertheless have tried to clean up their image. The Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs, a U.S. organization that strives to protect the pastime from being regulated out of existence, has created a code of ethics that it requires members to follow. Some key points: Enthusiasts should be careful to check local, state and federal laws before searching in an area, and search on private property only with the owner’s permission. Additionally, they should be careful to not to harm wildlife or natural resources at a site, and be careful to refill all holes and dispose of any trash that they find in an area. 

In another positive development, archaeologists have started trying to work with metal-detecting buffs, rather than against them. A few years ago, when archaeologists took a fresh look at Little Bighorn in Montana, the site of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 1876 defeat by the Sioux, they recruited amateurs with metal detectors to form a column and sweep the entire battlefield. But instead of stopping to dig when they heard a beep, the hobbyists left the objects in place and marked them with flags, which allowed archaeologists to take careful notes on each artifact’s orientation and declination. That teamwork yielded data that enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the actual sequence of events in the battle and disprove the legends that arose, according to Ewen.

Ewen is eager to see more such cooperation. “Most of the [metal-detecting hobbyists] want to help,” he says. “They’re interested in the past. Our job is to channel that interest in a constructive way.”

Metal-detecting buffs also help their hobby’s image when they offer their services to help people find lost items such as wedding rings. In August, for example, after a Pittsburgh woman named Kristen Sweitzer lost her engagement and wedding rings in the surf near a Florida resort, the day was saved by a local digger, Paul Rodinsky, who normally spends his time scouring local beaches for pre-Civil War buttons, old coins, and other antique curiosities. Rodinsky showed up with his special waterproof metal detector, and quickly located the woman’s jewelry—valued at $10,000—in the wet sand. When Rodinsky presented Sweitzer with the rings, she tried to pay him a reward, but he declined. “You reap what you sow,” he explained to a newspaper interviewer.