Although portable metal detectors have been used recreationally since the development of the equipment in the mid-1940s, little common ground had been established between archeologists and metal detecting hobbyists. It would have likely continued this way if not for a wildfire in 1984 that consumed the tall grass covering the Little Big Horn Battlefield in Little Bighorn Battlefield NM in eastern Montana. The fire provided a unique opportunity for an innovative archeologist and a group of metal detector hobbyists to establish a mutually beneficial working relationship that resulted in the collection of valuable data about the 130 year old battle. This collaboration on the plains of Montana provided the basis for a whole new line of inquiry which came to be known as Battlefield Archeology. Projects undertaken on battlefields in the Southeast United States by staff of the NPS Southeast Archeological Center employed, modified, and improved battlefield archeology methods to provide new and/or revised interpretations of battles associated with the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Civil War.
While the first working metal detectors were invented in the mid-1830s, and even used by Alexander Graham Bell to search for the assassin’s bullet in an American president, the hobby did not truly begin until the end of World War II (Roberts 1999). The demands for bomb detectors during the war led to the production of large numbers of metal detectors, which were later sold as surplus. The post war economic boom infused Americans with a new enthusiasm for leisure activities, including metal detecting. The hobby of metal detecting did not explode until the 1970s, after the introduction of the microprocessor, printed circuit board, and miniaturized transistors. These innovations reduced the price and weight of metal detectors, making them more accessible to the public. However, their usefulness as a tool for archeological inquiry was met with skepticism which extended to metal detecting hobbyists as well (Scott 2005).
Archeologists have been using metal detectors for as long as the machines have been available. Unfortunately during much of this time the machines and operators have not been effective for archeological pursuits. With few exceptions, the results were so poor that it led to the conclusion that a metal detector in the hands of an archeologist was the same as doing nothing at all. In many cases, archeologists only located large targets and then dismissed the machines as ineffective, never realizing that they were repeating a pattern common in novice metal detector users. Novice users, which include many archeologists, tend to locate larger targets, and to miss bullets and other battle related items.
As a result, many archeologists dropped metal detectors as an archeological data collection technique. Other archeologists felt that use of metal detectors would link them with looters who use them in the eyes of the public, and weaken arguments against allowing open detecting on federal lands.
Metal-Detecting and Battlefield Archeology
The most accurate data results from the proficient use of this technology by individuals who can effectively employ and interpret this technology, the number of successes has grown as archeologists developed an appropriate methodology. In 1972, when Snow (1981) demonstrated the archeological data potential of battlefield archeology at the Saratoga Battlefield in Saratoga National Historic Park, a Revolutionary War period site dating to 1777, in upstate New York. Snow discarded traditional archeological techniques and chose instead to use aerial photographs, magnetometers, and soil probes to locate battlefield positions. Although he did not employ metal detecting, his work clearly showed that there was an enormous historical and cultural data potential in American battlefields. This served to enhance the value of such studies and set the stage for the use of metal detecting as an archeological research tool.
A year after Snow's pioneering work, Dickens (1979) conducted an archeological investigation at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in eastern Alabama that included a systematic sweep using metal detectors. This was the site of a battle that took place between the US Army and the Upper Creek Indian Confederation in March 1814. During the survey, eleven artifacts that related to the battle were recovered. These include “…lead rifle balls, three iron grape shot, and two iron-cut nails” (Dickens 1979:26). This study demonstrated that acceptable results could be obtained using metal detectors. The archeological literature is virtually devoid of successful metal detecting surveys on battlefields for the decade following Dickens' work, however.
Arguably, the most important archeological metal detecting took place in 1984, at Little Bighorn Battlefield in eastern Montana. This is the site of a battle that took place between the US Army and Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne forces in 1876. During this survey Scott and Fox showed the effectiveness of working with metal detectors and metal detecting hobbyists to obtain information about battlefields (Scott and Fox 1987). Based on the results of their testing (Fox and Scott 1991) the researchers later described a post-Civil War battlefield pattern. The identification of a pattern began with the determination of individual actions identified from the distribution of artifacts with unique signatures or characteristics (e.g., rifling patterns on bullets, ejector marks, or firing pin marks). The individual patterns were aggregated into unit patterns, which in turn formed the battlefield pattern. Fox and Scott described battlefield patterns as “in the absence of unit tactical disorganization, signature patterning may reflect prescribed deployment” (1991:97).
While Scott and Fox (1987) worked on a battlefield where each side had different weapon types, this was not true of most of the other conflicts that have taken place in the southeastern U.S. One method used to compensate for the lack of unique bullet signatures was illustrated by Lees (1992). His study of the Mine Creek Battlefield in eastern Kansas led him to conclude that clusters of "unfired” or "dropped" bullets provide the best basis for reconstructing troop positions, because they mark the precise location of individuals. Concentrations of fired bullets falling behind unit positions, on the other hand, are most likely indirect indicators of lines, and thus these represent a "ghost" of those positions (Lees 1992:8).
Between 1992 and 1993, Haecker and Mauck (1997) conducted research at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site in southeast Texas, the site of the first battle of the Mexican War (1846-1848). This research showed the effectiveness of using historic maps in conjunction with geographic information systems (GIS) to guide the archeological testing.
Beginning in 1992 and continuing until the present, the NPS Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) has been conducting battlefield surveys using metal detector hobbyists. During that time methodological innovations have continued. These innovations include aggregating data into cells and producing contour maps of battle activity, creating a stability index for individual battle areas (Cornelison 2006a), using Sivilich’s (1996) shot calculation formula in conjunction with GIS maps to interpret battlefields (Cornelison and Cooper 2002a), and the application of multiple technologies on battlefield sites (Cornelison and Cooper 2002b).
At SEAC, the relationship between archeologists and metal detector hobbyists began in 1992. The Chattanooga Area Relic and Historical Association (CARHA), a local group of metal detecting hobbyists approached the historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park to offer assistance with the park’s battlefield survey. Fortuitously SEAC had just acquired an electronic total station and needed to field test the equipment. The project took place at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which is located in northwest Georgia and southeastern Tennessee, is the site of a Civil War battle that took place in September 1863.
An area inside the western edge of the Chickamauga Battlefield, slated for highway development, was selected as a test location for the transit and the metal detecting survey. This area had been previously surveyed using both metal detecting and shovel testing by an archeologist and had found no significant archeological resources. The survey was conducted between 1992 and 1993. The CARHA members were overwhelmingly hard-working and knowledgeable. The metal detecting teams located artifacts from the battle that conventional survey methods and archeologists’ use of metal-detectors had missed.
The 1992 work at Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP demonstrated the usefulness of metal detecting as a research tool but more importantly it demonstrated that experience with the equipment made a significant difference in what was located and recovered and that a working relationship between archeologists and metal detecting hobbyists was not only possible but important to achieving reliable results. The SEAC has undertaken archeological survey using volunteer metal detector on five American Civil War parks (Cornelison 2000, 2005, 2007), on three Revolutionary War battlefields (Cornelison 2006b, Cornelison and Cooper 2002a, Cornelison and Groh 2007), on one Red Stick (Indian) battlefield (Cornelison 2006b), and one War of 1812 battlefield (Cornelison and Cooper 2002b). The following discussion of a Revolutionary War battlefield survey illustrates the results that can be obtained when there is a good relationship between archeologists and metal detectors.