Letting It All Hang Out

Many senior Swedish archaeologists are afraid of metal detectors and uncomfortable with the idea that the public might have access to such machines. Likewise with information about the locations, or even the existence, of newly made metal detector finds. “Keep it quiet or you’ll attract looters.”

To some extent I agree: telling the press you have discovered a ploughed-out silver coin hoard before you’re reasonably sure you have collected everything you can of it would just be stupid. But as often shown in my blogging, I don’t agree when it comes to copper-alloy finds. In fact, I favour easing the Swedish metal-detector restrictions. Let’s assume that any given detectorist is a responsible person until they prove otherwise! And I favour wide dissemination of new archaeological data as and when they become available. Good scholars don’t need to build their careers on keeping data secret. The true value of their work lies in their innovative and painstaking methods of analysis and interpretation.

The advantages to this open-door approach have become even clearer to me during the past week. Thanks to fieldwork blogging and a mailing list, my project made the national news media. And thanks to the participatory nature of blogs, I have had two important details of the Kaga foil-figure model pointed out to me: details that I had not seen myself. The lady in the picture is not wearing a disc brooch: it’s the disc of a huge and slightly indistinct disc-on-bow brooch. And she hasn’t just got a space-filling box beside her feet: she’s sitting on the box. Thanks, Margrethe W and Mats W!

This is collaborative research in overdrive: I make data available and everyone gets to take part in their interpretation. I make use of the bits that convince me and give due credit in print. Besides, I have amateur participants in nearly all my fieldwork. Everybody wins: both scholarship and the public. But you’ll notice that my blog entries name only the parishes where my sites are located, not the farmsteads or grid references. And there is rarely any mention here of precious-metal finds from my sites.

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16 thoughts on “Letting It All Hang Out

  1. Ian Hodder’s Catal Hoyuk project has laid a lot of weight upon open interpretation for over a decade. But that doesn’t count as he’s such a relativist that he doesn’t believe in any of the interpretations, even his own. (-;


  2. I can see several uses for metal detectors for example as a tool during in surveys or during excavations. I am not so sure though regarding easing the restrictions of usage of metal detectors though I believe that you are right regarding many senior archaeologists and I believe that there is a need for an easy and quick way of applying for a licence. Thinking about it I probably am for some changes: the licences could be more general than it is today and there is perhaps only a need for licences on areas with known monuments.

    The issue of open interpretation is a really interesting one and as you say a tool both for including different groups and to get direct feed back. Tools like blogs etc. is also a great way of giving updated news, be it from an excavation, survey or research project.


  3. Think of responsible metal detectorists this way: they are free skilled survey labour in the service of archaeology. How many professional archaeologists would be willing to spend 50 weekends every year metal-detecting the same two or three parishes? That’s what Denmark has, in the hundreds or thousands, all over the country. And so their 1st Millennium research is 30 years ahead of Sweden’s.


  4. Lars: There are a few US sites that do similar things, and I think I’ve come across at least one Canadian one, an ethnoarchaeological project up north. I think it was an Inuit village, but don’t quote me. I think I can find the link again, if ned be. I don’t know anybody who’s done a blog, though, and I for one think this is an excellent idea, and one that is long overdue and needs addressing.
    How’s anyone supposed to know what teeny tiny little detail might be of interest or use to me in the many, many notes and records that we make during a dig? Half of the things I find interesting in the reports are the little off the cuff things that people just throw out there, one-liners in a report or a thesis paper. If it’s in a blog or a forum, I can go back and ask the person who first made the statement, and that, in turn, might help him or her see that little insignificant blurb in a different light. It’s a two-way street this way, and it’s much more interesting when research can be done cross-culturally and cut through different sciences.

    Martin: Your comment was the funniest thing I’ve read today. Thanks, I needed that! -T


  5. mine sweepers came to the US after WWII. They were used to destroy nearly every American Civil War and Indian wars site, by people looking for bullets, belt buckels and other souveniers. Almost none of this stuff made it into the official record, and the collections have been for the most part dispersed thru antique stores and such means of commercializing artifacts. Thier use is entirely unregulated here, they are for sale on late-night TV. Can get them for a few hundred dollars. They’re good for finding waterlines and buried cables. When word gets out thru local press, loose talk, corrupt sherrifs or game wardens about some important find, the more sophisticated looter of today (looking for cuprous as well as gold/silver)gets in to destoy historic Indian and colonial sites as well. On the other hand, there are a FEW users who consider themselves amateur archaeologists who will bring thier machines out to help on a certain scheduled project. Most metal-detector owners wouldn’t tell thier best buddy about thier latest area of finds until they were sure they were thru digging it out themselves. To him keeping control of that knowledge translates into money. On the whole, I’d say it’s been a lot more butter-side-down than up for the devices. They are more a threat than you might think; but then your people appear to a lot more easily governed/led.


  6. Haha, the much-vaunted American freedom!

    I don’t know about easily-governed, but I dare say we’re better organised in matters such as public healthcare, ancient-monument protection and gun control.

    There are no trespassing laws in Sweden. Anyone’s free to go pretty much whereever they want and pick berries & shrooms. Still we see very litte site looting, detector-aided or not.

    I believe the American looting problem may be due to a perception that Native American sites do not represent the current population’s ancestors.


  7. Martin: I´m glad you take this point of view. I too believe that something ought to be done to make it easier to get permission to use metall detectors in scientiffic projects. For instance as a tool in field surveys they would be very usefull (as you yourself has demonstrated).

    I don´t think the County Administrative Boards (or some of them) reallay understand taht metall detectors can be used in good purpose. I tried to get a permission to use a detector on a medieval (?) and post-medieval site once, to get better datings and to find out if metall had ben part of the material culture and in what extent. But I was talking to a high and coold wall. They dismissed the case basicly on the argument “do we really want that knowledge?”.


  8. Pierre: I think that this is the problem, today it is to hard to get permission due to lack of knowledg. Me & a colleague got the county board at Kronoberg to accept a purchase of one last year during the surveys after the storm Gudrun though. In the case we argued that it was the best method to see if metal objects had followed the roots when trees on burial sites had fallen due to the storm.

    I also think that it is important that projects like Martins get attention as they show that good and important results can be made thanks to detecting.


  9. “Do we really want that knowledge?” HELL YEAH! The only people who don’t want it are a few lazy heritage administrators who don’t want more discoveries to deal with. The Östergötland county archaeologist’s office, on the other hand, has been very supportive of my work.

    At a seminar in the 90s, I heard an Uppsala scholar defend his omission of metal detecting at the Valsgärde aristocratic settlement site with the argument that any finds in the ploughsoil were “decontextualised” and so useless. Silly bastard.


  10. This topic is constantly coming back. And I usually claim that the problem is not only connected with reactionary archaeologists or county board officers. I mean that there always has to be someone (museum officer or researcher) taking care of the stuff and the documentation and turn it into some kind of accessible information. In Denmark the county museums fills that role. As Pierre pionts out any “scientific project” should have the permission. If there is a plan showing exactly how detectors are to be used and what will happen to the documentation and finds, then it should be OK.


  11. Don’t forget that the finds aren’t going to wait for us forever. Every year the frost and ploughing and acid rain breaks them down a little more. Better get them out of the ploughsoil with GPS coordinates and into a box at the county museum, even if it takes years before anyone gets around to writing about them.


  12. Martin; the things I am thinking about will _not_ take years for people to write about. I am not thinking of those loads of completely crappy items that no one ever will lay there eyes on, less there hands…


  13. Museum stores are funny places. In dark corners you will always find forgotten things that can be really amazing. That’s what I wrote my thesis about. Cool stuff dug up by contract archaeologists with little time for or interest in writing about finds.

    Birger Nerman used to say, “You always make your best finds in the stores”.


  14. Magnus,I too believe taht the lack of knowledge is a main problem. Isn´t it then a bit wierd that paeople with such lack of knowlwdge are supposed to almighty regin over what can and can not be done?

    Martin: you point out another problem. Certain Uppsala scholars are not the only ones who condider ploughsoil finds as useless. That goes for one or another county administrator too.

    Lars: you´re absolutely right, some “institution” ought to take care of the finds. In the case I refered to, that was supposed to be the local county museum. In this case it also was a question of conservation, which might be rather expencive. But you don´t need to collect everything? You can scip 200 rusty nails, couldn´t you? I´m told that a good detectorist can separate different metalls only by tha sound of the “beeps”.

    Martin again: the fact that finds aren´t always going to be there is yet another problem that bureaucrats (and one or another archaelogist I have noticed) doesn´t aleays seem to understand.


  15. When working with a metal detector, you usually don’t even dig out the finds that sound like iron in your headphones. Most of them are nails and horseshoe nails that can’t be dated and say very little about the past.

    I use a C-scope detector of a common model. When its mosquito-like whine becomes louder, you know there is a metal object under the disc. If the pitch sinks, it’s iron. If it stays unchanged, it’s lead. If it rises a bit, it’s copper alloy. And if it rises sharply, it’s gold, silver — or fucking aluminium bottle tops.

    The shape of the object also influences the sound. Brass rifle cartridges and ring-shaped objects of any metal tend to sound like gold.


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