Relic hunting vs Archaeology?

Today’s Tennssean ran two articles related to relic hunting for Civil War artifacts. They are worth reading.

I side more with supporting archaeological discovery of relics and artifacts as opposed to relic hunting through metal detecting. Archaeological discovery should be supported by the State, County or Town in an official capacity, not limited to public funding within reason, especially if the ground being explored is owned by the State or City.

If people want to relic hunt on private property then I think that is fine, so long as permission is granted by the owners. I think it is wrong of relic hunters who sneak on private or State property – without permission – and look for artifacts.

If human bones or remains are found – on private or public grounds – the City or State officials should be contacted so that proper care, recovery and commemoration can be afforded the person. I’d also encourage relic hunters on private property to volunteer to work closely with State archaeological officials so that the community can learn the most possible from important finds.

Important knowledge about the Civil War- and battles – can be gained from official archaeological projects. For example, when the H.L. Hunley submarine was discovered in 2000 in Charleston Harbor, it was a professionally sponsored archaeological project. One of the most important finds – one that might have been neglected by private relic hunters – was the exact location of the human remains inside the submarine.

The eight crewmen’s remains were in the exact position they had while working at their station as death took place.  This allowed scientists to better understand what happened on that ill-faited cruise in February 1864.  Had several of the crew members’ bones been piled in one spot – under the hatch – it would have been evidence that the crew fought for air in the last few seconds as they clamored to escape the chamber of death.

Because so much personal relic hunting for Civil War artifacts takes place outside public scrutiny, we will never know what important facts are lost forever about how a battle was won-lost, the nature of casualties, the original lay of the topography, etc.

Private relic hunters are interested in private benefits, whether they be financial or for personal ego. Publicly-sponsored archaeological projects insure the entire community will benefit from the knowledge we can gain from uncovering priceless Civil War artifacts that have remained hidden for over 140+ years. They might rarely be priceless in terms of monetary value, but they are priceless in terms of what we can better understand why and what happened on these hallowed grounds.

Where do you stand?  Relic hunting or archaeology?

4 thoughts on “Relic hunting vs Archaeology?

  1. Ann Wycoff Raab left this comment on my Facebook page:

    Thank you for posting this article. As an archaeologist, I see important information being destroyed all the time, often by people who sincerely love history and wish to find out more about it. But the process of archaeology is more than just finding interesting objects, and unfortunately, the removal of such objects from sites destroys so much … See Moreinformation that you can never get back.

    I work a lot with sites on private property, and with property owners, and I find the property owners to be extremely valuable sources of information and very helpful. If the goal is truly to shed more light on past ways of life and important events, then professional archaeologists and the general public have much to learn from each other and can work together in many wonderful and creative ways. Archaeologists are more interested in the information to be gained, than from the objects themselves anyway. When individuals are only in it for personal gain, however, then everyone loses. The best solution is to find ways to work together so that everyone wins, but that requires mutual trust and respect…which usually means more education for all. Sites like the Battle of Franklin, and posts such as these, are a good tool in that educational process.

    Ann added later…..

    The thing to remember is that, as I stated earlier, archaeologists are very interested in the information that comes from an archaeological excavation. And taking those relics out of the ground destroys that information. So while it is “cool” to see those relics, the amount of information that is lost from just digging them up is truly staggering. It is comparable to taking all the great works of literature, and cutting your favorite quotes out of them, but then burning the rest of the book. We may have a neat quote to read, but the context of the book would be lost, and the quote becomes meaningless.

    I do agree that it’s a shame that so many interesting artifacts are stored away, but I think that’s where cooperation between public and private interests and institutions can come into play. It’s important to have a professional excavation done in order to get the proper information. And the work I do has nothing to do with “rare” relics at all. That’s not the point of archaeology. The point is to fill in the gaps in the story of history, whether it’s ancient history or relatively recent. You’d be amazed at what you can discover from looking at broken plates, glass, and minie balls. They may not seem “rare”, but the information they provide is priceless if the excavation is done properly.

    One very useful role for many individual history buffs is to find and record sites. Having those sites on record is so useful, and can help to justify preserving areas when development is scheduled. … See More

    It’s important to remember that for every relic pulled out of the ground, an entire story is lost. We are stewards of the past, and I feel we owe it to the people of the past who lived and worked hard to tell their story properly.

  2. I don’t see this as a “flat”, “across-the-board”, “either, or” situation. As with any profession, there are “good” and “bad” archaelogists. The same may be said for relic hunters. Perhaps the biggest issue regarding archaelogy is man-power and monetary support. Many historical sites in need of research are neglected, citing lack of funds or trained individuals to do the needed work.

    Living in Southside Virginia for 10 years gave me ample opportunity to dig “Commonwealth” soil. I conducted several salvage archaeology projects in an effort to save what would have otherwise been lost.

    When the Nathaniel Friend house, (Circa 1815), in Petersburg, Virginia was purchased for retail space, workers removed several tons of fill that had accumulated in the cellar. This unskilled labor force hand shoveled the cellar and its’ contents onto an asphalt parking lot adjacent to the building.
    No effort was made to preserve artifacts or the history they represented.
    Even though the objects were no longer “in situ”, I still saw them as being important enough to save. Several days of screening the fill deposit produced animal bones, bottles and bottle fragments, pottery sherds, and numerous other artifacts. I made a concerted effort to conserve and preserve these items and wrote a lengthy research brief discussing the process. A few days after I finished, the soil was dumped elsewhere and covered with asphalt. Had I not taken the time and energy to do so would have resulted in a great loss for Petersburg and the historical community at large.

    Another location, (a multi-story brick building circa 1814), in downtown Petersburg was being renovated and the cellar’s dirt floor was slated for rehab. I carefully excavated several square feet taking time to map and note the cellar’s dimensions and the position of artifacts recovered. This site boasted many “finds” which would have been lost to the ages. Animals bones, bottles, decorative wrought iron pieces, china, and a mid-1800s pipe bowl with evidence of tobacco were all saved.

    I also find little wrong with metal detecting for Civil War artifacts. Granted, a certain code should be observed by those doing the digging. Many hunters care not for the history as they do for the financial gain in recovering belt plates, arty shells, buttons and the like. I know of several relic hunters who are careful to properly excavate and document their finds. One is a man considered to be the “poster child” for quality relic hunters. D.P. Newton spent years collecting Federal and Confederate artifacts in and around Stafford County, Virginia. Moreover, he carefully mapped the exact location of every minie’ ball, canteen, bayonet, and button he recovered. Newton has excavated the contents of soldier’s winter hut’s fireplaces; even preserving the ashes and charred wood.
    In 1999, D.P. opened his privately owned and maintained museum in Falmouth, VA. ( This museum is evidence that one need not be a certified archaeologist to properly preserve our nation’s rich heritage.

    John Marler
    Franklin, TN

  3. Many of these relics are desintigrating in the ground and the goverment, and the Archealogical community is doing nothing about it. Better for a relic hunter to find them than for them to be lost forever

  4. I agree with Chris…the longer relics are in the soil they become worse year after year until they are barely identifiable. Why do you partition off property and leave nice relics in the ground? If you are saving them for future archaeologist to dig up you are making a grave mistake.

    The sad part is that a majority of the finds that are recovered by archaeologist are never seen by the public. I have seen this time and time again, especially on a military posts.

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