Metal-detecting buffs often have an uneasy relationship with the archaeologists and public officials who’ve banned them from parks and other public spaces. But both enthusiasts and detractors say that if you’re going to take up the hobby, you should practice it in an ethical manner that avoids harm to our historical legacy and environment—and possibly even does some good. Here are some key principles, gleaned from both metal detecting organizations’ codes of ethics and recommendations from archaeologists.
Obey the law. Make sure that you’re familiar with the federal, state and local regulations about metal detecting that cover the area where you’d like to search.A state’s Archaeologist’s Office or its Department of Historical Resources and Preservation are a good place to begin. If the land is federally owned, you can contact the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Get permission. Get an okay from the owner of a property—written, preferably—before you conduct a search.
Leave a site in the same shape that you found it. Refill any holes that you dig, and try not to needlessly destroy plant life. Don’t leave behind any trash, and dispose of any refuse from other people that you find. And make sure that you close the gate on the way out.
Try to pick low-risk places to search. Archaeologists recommend beaches, where you’re not likely to disturb a site that’s of serious archaeological value.
Recognize that local communities have a right to their heritage. As archaeologist Jeffrey Altschul explains, what may seem like an interesting historical curiosity with little monetary worth to you may be a priceless piece of history to others. “It’s not only a civil war bullet or a 19th Century saw blade,” he says. “To the community where you found it, it could be something that belonged to one of their founders.”
Resist the urge to sell stuff that you find on eBay. “As far as we’re concerned, one of the worst things you can do is sell artifacts,” explains archaeologist Charles Ewen. “It’s a deal breaker.” Instead of being hidden away in collectors’ vaults, archaeologists want artifacts to be accessible to scholars and visible to the public.
If you find items lost by a landowner or some other identifiable person, return them. “Before you hunt, ask them if there is anything they might have lost that you could help them find,” advise metal-detecting buffs Tim Saylor and George Wyant, the stars of Diggers, on their website. “It's just one more way to be helpful to your neighbors, and you will likely be invited back with such behavior.”
Help further the cause of archaeology. Join local and/or state archaeological and historical organizations, and volunteer to help researchers when you can. They’re increasingly open to getting help from metal-detecting buffs. You also may be able to get training from them, or simply absorb knowledge, that will enhance your own appreciation and enjoyment of searching for remnants of the past. “Metal detecting actually can be a very useful tool to archaeology,” explains archaeologist Polk. “But it has to be used in a very specific way,” i.e. as part of a carefully planned scientific investigation.