Timex wristwatch with black face and gold band, 2018.
history pragmatic historian time

Unsettled by the Metal Detector Man

Timex wristwatch with black face and gold band, 2018.
Timex wristwatch with black face and gold band, 2018.

One day last week, our dog’s insistent barking (he rarely barks) announced that someone was near the yard. A man with a metal detector came to the door and asked if he could search our yard. He was attracted to our house because it is old.

This is the second time this has occurred. Last year, a different man with a metal detector asked if he could search our yard because our house is old.

These requests were unsettling for several reasons. For one, they were unexpected. I don’t know about you, but when someone makes an unexpected (and unusual) request in such a way that you need to respond immediately, I tend to give in to what they ask for because I haven’t been given time to think about it. (Man at door, dog freaking out … gotta come up with an answer NOW!)

Another unsettling thing about the situation was watching a guy wander through the yard and dig stuff out of the ground on our property. This guy dug up a few things but didn’t bother to share what they were with us.

As a historian, I’m not as concerned with the monetary value of items (although that is a factor in this scenario), I’m more interested in their history. Metal detector enthusiasts, at least the novice ones, seem to be caught up in the romance of finding buried treasure, wherein they are only interested in the historical value of a piece if it contributes to the monetary value of it.

That’s a mighty big blanket of a statement I just made. Surely, metal detector enthusiasts care about the history of items for the history itself, right? Well, if they did, they would keep track of exactly where they found items, gridding and mapping items like archaeologists do. You see, once an item is removed from where it has been buried, it is no longer within the larger context of the history of the area. If they truly cared about the history of items, they would go this extra step to track precisely where they found each item, take photos of the pieces in their surroundings. (Do metal detector enthusiasts use GPS? That would help with location.)

The historian in me cringes as I watch pieces being dug up because I know the site has now been disturbed, which makes it compromised for future archaeologists.

I don’t remember either of the metal detector enthusiasts who examined our yard asking us about the history of the people who lived in our house before us or of the use of the land prior to our house. Those are pretty big clues as to what they would potentially find.

Related to this, both detectors noted that our house was “old” in choosing to search our yard. Yes, our house was built in the 1890s, however, the land in our neighborhood is all much older than our house, and our neighbors’ newer houses sit on land that is the same age as our property.

The age of our house is a blip in the landscape of geologic age. Looking at the age of a particular house is only going to indicate a thin layer of history in the land related to that house; it’s not going to tell you what might be even deeper. In our town, there is a newer housing development built on an old dump site. That would be a metal detector’s dream, but if they use the age of houses as an indication of where to search, they will miss out. (I like to call dumps and landfills “midden piles” for future archaeologists.)

Given all of these unsettling factors related to metal detectors, I’d like to issue a challenge to metal detector enthusiasts: Go all in with your hobby.

Make yourself a historian/archaeologist and take notes and make maps of what you find and where. Dig into the history of found items (including the history of the dwellings and landscape) with as much care as you use on digging up the items themselves. Take some classes or attend programs on the methods of historians and archaeologists to learn more. Ask the property owners what they know about the area’s history. Spend time in local museums and archives to get to know the deeper history of where you are searching.

I suspect expanding your hobby in this way will bring even greater riches than the monetary value of the found objects.