Metal detecting and material culture

When I was much younger, I interned for 4 months at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It was about that time when I discovered “material culture” as a field of study. As a historian raised on a steady diet of old papers, I couldn’t make much sense out of material culture. It seemed to me then that any interpretation of an old object was equally valid.  If curator A thought an item was a snuff box, but curator B was convinced that it was a cookie tin, an argument would ensure, and the ultimate decision about what to name an object, I suspected, was determined not so much by experience and knowledge, but by the relative strength of the curators’ personalities and convictions. It was classic appeal to authority. Similar battles about the naming of objects occur all the time in antique stores, a topic I’ve written about before.

Metal detecting as an auxiliary historical science is rarely to be found on a material culture syllabus or in discussions at a museum. There is still an image of the metal detectorist as a loner who scours beaches looking for golden rings but seldom comes up with more than quarters.

But I have been on a quest to explore history from different angles, to develop new tools, as it were, for understanding the past.  Metal detecting is a peculiar form of historical hobby because it is so interactive. A metal detectorist looking at a 19th century property knows that he might find old buttons or a lid to a mason jar. But chances are, he is going to pull up out of the ground a host of objects that he cannot explain, at least not right away. Research ensures. Over time, the metal detectorist becomes a material culture historian, but also something of a landscape historian, a historian who studies space and place of domestic life. History courses could benefit from the lessons of the metal detectorist.

Some basic lessons for the historian that I’ve learned since taking up metal detecting are the following:

(1) If you want to find an old site, look out for flowers, particularly daffodils. A log cabin might have rotted away, a house might have burned down a hundred years ago, and no visible signs remain. But daffodils will returned year after year, long after the house is gone. These might grow in the wild, but they are usually a good sign of a human footprint.

(2) Find the privy. Find the clothesline. Look for the well. These are places that saw a lot of traffic. Study the landscape to determine where a family might have placed outbuildings relative to their house. As you detect signals in a line, you might have come across a wire fence line. Use this to narrow your search to promising areas.

(3) This is something a geologist can tell you, but we historians are often ignorant of: the ground moves over time like a wave. An iron nail rises and falls in the soil. Some metal sinks to the bottom of the loam, until it hits rock or clay. The ground is always moving, always turning over.

(4)  The material culture of the past can paint new lessons about your view of every day history. One surprise for me was learning about the ubiquity of harmonica reed finds among metal detectorists. The harmonica was only invented in the early 19th century, but there were millions of these things. People brought them everywhere, and in an era before radio, this was a common form of entertainment. Harmonicas also easily fall out of pockets into the grass and mud. The wooden frame rots away and the metal reed remains.

Recently, I had a six horse shoe day while metal detecting. Here though are some of the good finds.

1.) pocket watch.
2.) 12 cents from 1979.
3.) Suspender clasp.
4.) Hem weight to hold down a 19th c dress
5.) random Greek flag
6.) Crotal bell size 2.
7.) Brass flywheel.
8.) squeezebox reed.
9.) metal comb.
10.) your grandpas keys



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