Enthusiast of a different kind – Metal detectors

As an archaeologist people who have found artifacts such as old pieces of ceramic, square nails or various stone tools while they are out on a walk or building a new fence on their property contact me on a regular basis. I think these people show us their artifacts because they are history enthusiasts. They are genuinely interested in knowing about our past. Increasingly, we are hearing about another type of enthusiast, the metal detector enthusiast. We are not sure exactly how prevalent this activity is in Newfoundland and Labrador but we are sure it is becoming more popular. I informally polled the Provincial Archaeology Offices across Canada and discovered that this activity is occurring right across the country. Using and owning a metal detector is legal, however, it becomes illegal when these tools are used to find archaeology sites and dig up artifacts.

In this Province, I get the impression that most metal detector enthusiasts are searching public areas such as parks, beaches and popular walking trails looking for things such as recently lost coins or jewellery. As an archaeologist, this type of activity makes me very nervous, but for the most part, it will not harm an archaeological site. However, there are also people who use metal detectors in places such as National Historic Sites and archaeological sites. These areas cause us the most concern with regard to archaeological resources being disturbed or destroyed.

Signal Hill, National Historic Site.
Signal Hill, National Historic Site.

If someone is using a metal detector on a National Historic Sites or an archaeological site it is more likely they are looking for archaeological artifacts. Chances are these people are collecting artifacts to add to their own personal collection or to make a profit by selling them. According to the Historic Resources Act Section 11(1), all artifacts are the property of the Crown and Section 11(2) indicates that it is illegal to sell or buy artifacts. All archaeological artifacts in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador belong to the Crown and it is illegal to look for such artifacts without an archaeological permit. If a person does discover an archaeological object he/she is obligated to report it to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation via the Provincial Archaeology Office as outlined in Section 10 (1) of the Historic Resources Act.

Iron nails found at a site that was found by a metal detector user.
Iron nails found at a site that was found by a metal detector user.

Metal detector users may argue that they are not harming anything by collecting. Not surprisingly, I would argue otherwise. In reality, they could potentially be destroying an archaeology site, a part of our collective history. Every archaeology site and every single artifact tells a story. Once the site is disturbed, that story can never be told again. It goes beyond the artifact to something called context, where the artifact was found, for example, was it associated with a fireplace, stonewalls or inside a tent ring? These are things that metal detector users are not seeing when they take artifacts out of context. Each artifact and its location is part of a story. Taking artifacts out of context is essentially the same as walking into a library and ripping pages from books. Those pages out of context are just sheets of paper and what is left behind are incomplete stories.

Ripping pages from books.
Ripping pages from books.

Some people may say it’s just a handful of artifacts, how much damage can that do to an archaeology site. Any amount of disturbance and the removal of only one artifact is too much damage. Let me give you an example. The very first archaeology site I worked on was on the west coast of Newfoundland. We knew the site contained both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo tent rings. These people lived on the Island from around 2800 years ago to just under 1000 years ago. During the excavation of one of the tent rings, we found a beautiful Little Passage culture stone arrowhead. Archaeologists have recognized the people of the Little Passage culture as the direct ancestors to the Beothuk. I distinctly recall sitting around our campfire that night and talking about this little point and its implications. Up to the time of our excavations, Little Passage sites were only known from a few places on that coast. The next day we found several pieces of what we think were worked pieces of iron nails in the same tent ring as the Little Passage stone arrowhead. The pre-European contact aboriginal people of Newfoundland did not have iron; therefore, we realized that we were not in a Little Passage tent ring but a Beothuk tent ring. We ended up finding 24 pieces of iron in that tent ring. This site is one of just two Beothuk sites known to exist on this coast. If a metal detector user had found that site first and had recovered or disturbed the context of that iron, we would have never known that site had a Beothuk component. One of just two Beothuk sites on that coast would have been gone. For that matter, let’s flip this scenario around. Lets say a metal detector user had found that site first and had recovered the iron; they never would have known they were in a Beothuk site. In addition, if they had brought the iron to an archaeologist asking for help to identify what they had found, the archaeologist would never have known the iron was from a Beothuk site. Context is as important as the artifact itself.

Little Passage complex or late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.
Little Passage complex or late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.

Fortunately, we have reached some people and they now understand the problems caused by using metal detectors to find and dig up metal objects beyond recently lost coins or jewellery. In some cases, this has lead to the discovery of sites in places like O’Donnells, Hant’s Harbour and Trinity. Once it was explained to the metal detector users the concerns we had with the use of metal detectors we believe that these people discontinued to look for archaeological artifacts that they could dig up. Now when they find concentrations of metal hits they let the Provincial Archaeology Office know. I also know that the staff of the Provincial Archaeology Office would be happy to sit down with anyone and discuss this issue.


40 thoughts on “Enthusiast of a different kind – Metal detectors

  1. Good topic for conversation, Stephen. The PAO has an important choice to make in how it approaches metal-detector enthusiasts. These folks are history buffs with a definite interest in exploring and locating artifacts.

    In some jurisdictions, archaeological authorities have recognized an opportunity and worked with metal-detector enthusiasts, to bring them onside as allies. See here for some examples:
    and there are many more examples on the web from the USA and UK.

    Or the PAO can play bad-cop and try to shut down the metal-detector enthusiasts, which will probably have two results: i) I suspect it will have very little impact on reducing the damage that these enthusiasts will continue to do (they are enthusiasts after all!), and ii) it will alienate them and turn them against any future cooperation with the PAO and archaeologists generally.

    We had almost exactly the same situation in the diving community. There were a small number of shipwreck looters and a large number of responsible divers in Newfoundland. A bunch of us started the Shipwreck Preservation Society of NL to educate divers about their impacts on wrecks, the legal restrictions, and most importantly to give them a legal and constructive way to pursue their passion. We will not stop shipwreck looting completely, but we will gradually change the mindset of most divers and turn them into a positive force.

    I hope the PAO will follow the path of harnessing the passion of metal-detector enthusiasts to contribute to our province’s understanding of our past.

  2. As a metal detectorist with 20 years experience in the hobby, I take great offense when archaeologists refer to us as “looters”. I have been involved in this hobby because of my passion of Newfoundland history and not for financial gain. I do not detect any National Historic Sites or dig archaeological sites.

    In the UK, metal detectorists have made many important discoveries such as the Hoxne Horde and recently, an Anglo Saxon treasure in Straffordshire that gave new insight into the Middle Ages. Metal detectorists are making discoveries on a regular basis and are more welcomed by archaeologists, as long as artifacts are turned over to the proper authorities. At least those who make these discoveries with a metal detector are appropriately recognized and not vilified. Yes, there are those who may break the law, but they are in the minority.

    Native Innu and other aboriginal groups may look at you as “looters” for digging the remains of their ancestors and disturbing burial sites, despite you justifying it for educational or historical reasons. It would be wise to co-operate rather than alienate metal detectorists because there could come a time when someone with a metal detector could change some misconception of Newfoundland history.

    1. I agree that many metal detectorists are indeed interested in history, and many do stay clear of known archaeological sites. However, not all sites are marked like Ferryland or Cupids, and as such, there is always a risk that digging could occur on a registered site, or a potential site that has not been recorded. Likewise, metal detectorists have also contributed to our understanding of history, particularly in places such as the UK as you have noted. However, there are some who do not, which unfortunately has probably led to the “looters” description.

      As such, I also agree that archaeologists need to improve relationships with the public in areas such as these, as history and archaeology is better served when we share our findings.

      1. In regards to your article on metal detecting in Newfoundland, I responded with the quote, “There could come a time when someone with a metal detector could change some misconception of Newfoundland history”…You may have scoffed at that statement, however just recently a metal detectorist in British Columbia recovered a British silver schilling from the mid 1500s from a mud flat that may have been lost by a member of Sir Francais Drake crew. Interesting.

        It is too bad that there are those such as the author and Neil Burgess feel they are “intellectuals” who think that because of education they are superior and act in a condescending manner to those who are not archaeologists. Many detectorists out there have just as much knowledge and are equally as intelligent. As quoted by Neil Burgess “they are enthusiasts after all”. and judging by the article itself, the author has very little knowledge of the activity itself.

        Actually, there was a time when I would have volunteered to help at a site with my skills as a detectorist,since history is my passion and it is a skill. However, this article has definitely made me reconsider that idea.

      2. Thanks for the comment.
        No I assure you I did not scoff at that statement. I know things like this occur, the Maritime Archaic burial at Port au Choix was found because of the construction of a theater, L’Anse aux Meadows was found because George Decker led Helge Ingstad to the site. Local folks find archaeology sites all the time; unfortunately we rarely hear from metal detector users about what they find.

        My intention in writing the post was not to be condescending. I am obligated to point out that using a metal detector to find objects is in contravention to the Historic Resources Act. It is selectively removing objects from the historic record. Objects that could be used to better inform us about the whole site. You are correct, the author does have very little knowledge of the activity but I was not sure how else to go about getting the attention of metal detector users.

  3. There are 80 members of the Metal Detecting Newfoundland Facebook group, however, not all own detectors. I am a member of the group as well as a former NL archaeologist. I have met many members of the local group who are completely respectful of historic sites as well as archeological sensitive areas. Detecting in St. John’s for the last four years, the majority of finds are less than six inches down, and usually that is a penny. The odd silver coin and ring does show up but not in any context. In conversations and dealing with construction safety during the last seven years as well as travelling throughout NL, I would be more concerned with the damage to potential archaeological sites caused by development and not metal detecting.

    1. The Provincial Archaeology Office does take the impact of development seriously and it makes every effort to protect sites under the Historic Resources Act. The difficulty with any unlicensed investigation that results in ground disturbance is that such activities are more often than not: not reported; artifacts are removed from contexts which results in a loss of information; and, as a result, our history is not shared, or worse, is lost.

    2. J,

      I agree that development is the prime culprit insofar as damaging or destroying artifacts.

      The original fort site that existed in Lachine dating to 1670 is now on the grounds of a school yard which I detected many times over the years….nothing older than late 1800’s was found by me….based on the top 6″ or so of depth I was covering.

      Due to fill and other soil disturbances over the years any artifacts from the earliest days would have been way beyond the reach of my metal detector.

      When they extended and renovated the building they scrapped over a foot or more of soil and carted it off to who knows where.

      To the best of my knowledge no archeological assessment was done prior to the work being done….and it was common knowledge that this was where the original fort was situated.



  4. Neil, I should have also acknowledged your excellent work in the diving community – your newly formed organization has gone a long way to better informing its members of their responsibilities under the Historic Resources Act, and that closer ties and a better working relationship are being fostered.

  5. Folks,

    I’ll add a personal story from this past winter to the conversation.

    I signed up for an online course on archeology at an ivy league university in the US.

    In the general discussion area I posted an open question “Are archeologists prepared to work with the metal detecting community?”.

    Quite a few people were open to the idea….however, one individual in particular accused us of being looters and grave robbers…I petitioned the course giver and moderator to reign this person in as it was against their posting rules.

    They refused to take any action….so I requested that the thread be locked and my account cancelled.

    Unless and only when the archeological community treat us with the respect we deserve there won’t be any serious level of cooperation.

    Remember we fund our equipment and other expenses out of our own pocket and the offer was made in good faith pro bono….let’s just say it left a bad taste in my mouth.

    By the way I detect public urban green spaces such as parks, school yards and sports fields exclusively and that’s pretty much the case for the vast majority of enthusiasts along with plowed fields with the permission of the landowners.

    We don’t knowingly detect or condone detecting any site considered off limits.


    Bill from Lachine

    1. Thanks Bill
      It’s unfortunate that you were left with that bad taste. Metal detecting is here, there is no denying that, unfortunately the adage ‘one rotten apple spoils the barrel’ applies here. We’ve seen youtube videos of people taking artifacts away from sites. That may not be true of all metal detector users, but as you said ‘it left a bad taste in our mouths’. It’s hard for us to work with the metal detector users here because there does not seem to be an organized group.

      1. Most serious detectorists have a great deal of respect for history….as well as knowledge of the items found.

        Suggest you peruse the finds database in the UK to get an idea of the volume and caliber of finds being recorded by detectorists…..also most of the major if not all the recent hoards that have been found in the UK and reported are by metal detectorists.

        Here’s a link:-




  6. As a detectorist and the finder of the 1551-1553 shilling in Victoria I would like to comment or the iron nail example you used in your argument against detectorists.
    Far less than 1% of the detectorists out there would ever dig and remove iron nails from any site because we are not interested in iron unless it may be an old ax head. We would be more inclined to use the iron as an indication of a possible homestead site. Most people who use a metal detector actually discriminate iron and their machines will pass over it without letting the detectorist even know it was there. If your main concern is for first nation sites I can assure you, as I have many people who have asked me this very question, no metal detector detects bone or stone. So if anything is found it would definitely be post contact era material.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Our concern is not just with for first nation sites. We’ve seen youtube videos of people here taking metal artifacts away from sites, in one case they were digging out handfuls of lead artifacts. It’s hard for us to work with the metal detector users here because there does not seem to be an organized group.

  7. as a avid detector and president of are local club I would like to say we have a written code of ethics in the metal detecting community that are members take very seriously we have established a very good partnership with are local community governments city and county which provide are members with permits to dig on city lands with guidelines as to were and were not we can dig. as are club is in the boundaries of high area of historical history. as for bad apples they are both in are hobby as well as the archeological profession. I have seen it first hand with the amount of construction in are area regarding a large highway project and windmills being erected in are area. I will not get into details but lets just say $$$ always rules and historical sites are put to the wayside. (you don’t bite the hand that feeds you)..my feelings are you should push to have a program similar to the u.k were they work together in solving some of histories secrets. many MDers are very educated in history, archeology and in identifying relics and truthfully I believe some could teach even the most educated archeologist a thing or two. we are a large national group with all are own specialties regarding different fields of archeology and you would be surprized at the knowledge we hold. and as hobbyist we work together as one to solve histories untold story . we believe 2 heads are better then one and until your field excepts the fact that we are a benefit to you and not a burden nothing will change.

  8. It is also very interesting to note that while the City of St.John’s has banned metal detecting from parks because of some bad apples taking shovels into the parks, .Archaeologists never uttered a word when the City destroyed the historic front area of the Colonial Building and built a skating rink over an area which could have contained potential artifacts…Does not make sense.

  9. It’s truly unfortunate that archeologists cannot see the forest for the trees. As artifacts decay and rot in the ground, they do not have the funding to dig everywhere. And for the sake of a 6″ hole that is “context lost”, they would rather cut off their noses to spite their face. Just think of the scenario of a detectorist discovering something significant and reporting it to archeologists who find an area they would never have searched to be hugely important. Is that 6″ hole so important as to negate the larger find? As long as archeologists try to drive others away with prohibitive laws and restrictions, the greater the demand from collectors willing to pay big bucks for artifacts. The vast majority of detectorists are law abiding citizens who have a love for history that matches those of archeologists, and would be more than willing to report finds. And what happens when we do report them? Some archeologist criticizes and insults the detectorist who reported the find. Read about the shilling Bruce found to see how he was lambasted by the archeological society there because he wasn’t “trained” or “educated” enough. You folks have no idea what great finds are made because of your dim view of us. And by the way, those that find significant artifacts rarely sell them to collectors…they lovingly display them for all to see, touch, and learn about the history. Museums only display 10% of their artifacts (usually behind glass) while the rest never see the light of day. Finally, as you have painted detectorists with the same broad brush as “looters”, here’s what was discovered about Howard Carter, who discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings He stole objects from the site and had a secret arrangement to sell them to the Met. So do we paint archeologists with the broad brush of crooks? No, we have more class than that and would rather try to work alongside them, than as foes.

  10. You are correct in noting that detectorists do and always will collect lead items. Be they old musket or mini ball rounds or bale seals. This type of item is a great way to date a site as you know. You would be surprised at how many of us actually record and catalog our finds in relation to location found. What you will also find is that many of us actually post pictures and descriptions of our finds online for everyone to see and enjoy free of charge.
    Can you assure me that all of the items from every archaeological dig is displayed for all to see and enjoy. Or does most of it end up in a box and forgotten.
    Also is every single find actually get documented and reports properly documented and entered as is required.
    The reason for my question is that I do know several archaeologists personally who have informed me that a good percentage of the nicer finds end up never been documented and in someone’s personal collection instead of going to a museum.
    This being the case your accusations are similar to the pot calling the kettle black.
    Only archaeologists use a bigger soap box to stand on when they refer to detectorists as destroyers of history.

  11. (thanks for your comment) “really” that’s how you respond to intelligent comments that were posted. it shows you care less to what we have commented about. and when you review all the post they were all from MDers and not one from a fellow archeologist. This gives me the feeling as MDers that we are more dedicated and responsible caretakers of historical preservation then archeologist. one only needs to look at the program at hand in the U.K and see the advances they have made in archeology discoveries that have increased dramatically since MDers involvement in working with the arcs. The proof is in the pudding and I will leave it at that..

  12. I notice your lack of a committed response to the last series of comments.
    I wonder if you would respectfully reply to this question.
    I will take an educated guess and assume that you have a personal collection of artifacts.
    Was each and every artifact legally purchased from a non archaeologist?
    If you can truthfully answer yes I take my hat off to you as an exemplary member of your association.

    1. Hi Bruce
      I do not have a collection of artifacts. No archaeologist I know has a personal collection of artifacts.

      Also, selling artifacts is illegal here.
      Section 11 (2) A person shall not buy, sell, trade or otherwise dispose of or remove from the province for the purpose of selling, trading or otherwise disposing of an archaeological object found in, on, or taken from the land within the province.

      1. If you truly do not have a single lithic piece of any kind I do indeed take my hat off to you. It does indeed lend credence to you by not having an old bottle in your window or an old rounded stone on your desk for a paperweight. Bravo

  13. Archaeology sept/oct 2013
    Page 42 Battlefield 1814
    If you haven’t read the article in the past perhaps you should pick up a copy and give it a read ,and I quote
    ” Despite its advantages, metal detector work was scorned for decades by archaeologists, who associated it with hoddyists or worse looters. That started to change in the mid 1980s ,when archaeologist Douglas Scott used the era’s newer more powerful metal detector In a survey of the battle of Little Bighorn” ( he later ran a simulation that estimated that if he had done his survey using the traditional shovel test methods ,he would have turned up fewer than 10 of the 5000 artifacts he found .)
    it is a very good article ,and as far as government’s Archaeologists go ,how many of them have turned a blind eye or buried there findings because they worked for the government ,We don’t just dig holes ,we do a lot of research as well as share it with museums and Archaeologists, when it comes to something special that we find, im sure when I say pretty much any one of these detectorists can take you to the spot they found it and tell you how deep in the ground it was ,for the most part we are not here to destroy history ,we are here to recover it and do not loot graves, just because you see someone on “Youtube ” doing something they shouldn’t ,does not mean we all do it ,and there is a lot of good detectorists on you tube as well ,if you lose your wedding ring in the lawn or at the lake house ,Im sure you would call one of the clubs in your area to find it for you ,oh sure you can dig your yard up to find it using your method ,to find it ,but I think we would find it a lot quicker. Most of the sites that you talk of are not share with the public for just that reason ,they don’t want anybody to tamper with them ,since the beginning of time man has buried ,dropped ,or left be hide things ,and these things belong to everyone ,not just a chosen few!

  14. Here’s another link to show the positive results achieved in the name of saving history from the ravages of time….oh yeah they use metal detectors.

    If you only knew the sheer volume of historical knowledge our community has you’d probably toss out your library of books on archeology.

    Regards + HH


  15. Metal Detecting can be permitted, such as done by the Mudlarks on the River Thames. It has been proven without them many descoveries would not have been done and are embraced. You must report any objects you find which could be of archaeological interest to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London on 020 7814 5733. This Scheme records all archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. If you believe that a find may qualify as treasure then you should contact the coroner for the district in which the object was found, usually within fourteen days of making the find. In practice many finders report treasure via the Finds Liaison Officer, which is also acceptable. The coroner or finds liaison officer will give guidance on what to do. The Treasure Act code of practice contains a directory of coroners in the Thames area. Objects can be donated if you wish or the Museum may even purchase if they feel it is of Historical importance.



  16. My friend is an archaeologist and he disagrees with giving metal detectorists a bad name. I found a site from the seven years war and reported it and they tried to make me into a criminal. I will never report any further findings to the government. Any future artifacts I may find will be examined and photographed by me and thrown back in the hole to rot.

    1. Thanks, that’s too bad. I think just one metal detectorist has reported a site here and I know they were not treated as a criminal.

      1. Yeah I got all kinds of questions was told I would have to turn in anything else I found or face penalties a nd stuff.. tried to do the right thing… Oh well.. I know not everyone is like that
        . But around here it seems to be that way.. Quebec/New Brunswick border..

      2. It is too bad.
        This is something new for for the archaeology office here (Newfoundland and Labrador) to have to deal with and there has to be a way for everyone to be happy.

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