Back in November, Sal met up with Bill Dancy to introduce him and his new book, Discovering Virginia's Colonial Artifacts, to some of our History Hunters. They had a great visit and Sal continues to encourage detectorists to purchase a copy of what has turned out to be an excellent publication.
The March installment of Civil War News was recently released and in it Lawrence E. Babits reviewed Bill's book. His stance on a relic hunter's approach and attempt to educate others on the importance of research and record keeping is encouraging.
We've received permission to run the review in its entirety here. Please enjoy and join us in congratulating Bill of his success in publishing an outstanding book on the hobby of metal detecting. We still have some signed copies for sale if you're looking to get your own.
“Cherish and Become a Good Custodian”
Review by Lawrence E. Babits
As an academic, professional archaeologist I had misgivings about this book because it dealt with an amateur who was a metal detectorist as well. The book alleviated my concerns for just about everything I’d long been taught but since come to see as overly restrictive. The change for the professional archaeological community came with the brilliant work Doug Scott and Rich Fox conducted at the Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand) battle site using volunteer metal detectorists.
Their detailed artifact recovery changed our understanding of how the battle was fought as well as moving the profession- al community to better utilize the equipment and knowledge of collectors. After all, collectors/ metal dectetorists study “their” sites and regions in much greater depth than many archaeologists do. A second aspect was that the time and labor involved by archaeologists using traditional test pitting did not result in recovery of much meaningful data on a battlefield, whereas the metal detector recovered materials that revealed the patterning archaeologists traditionally look for.
In this lavishly illustrated, glossy format text, longtime metal detectorist Virginian Bill Dancy provides a very useful “how to” example of good metal detecting. It is divided into four sections, plus nine appendices that more than adequately cover how to locate, recover, conserve and display relics from the past.
Four chapters make up Part I – Research and Recovery. These are the key basics to any archaeological effort and his lead-in chapter, “Research is the Key,” should be required reading. Dancy includes archival, cartographic and aerial photography as basic tools. He follows with advice about obtaining permission, something often overlooked before going onsite. His discussion about reading the landscape to find clues matching the research to the prospective site is important for stating the obvious about the often intuitive process of assessing where to dig. His long experience resulted in developing a tool kit that should be emulated as time and finances permit. His discussion of how to find trash pits would help many archaeologists obtain a site’s type collection that could then be used to educate crews about what they nd using traditional methodology.
At this point, a jump to chapter 25 is important. Dancy focuses on recovering materials. If he were to add sections on photo- graphing trashpits and find sites so as to reveal their stratigraphy, most archaeologists would probably be happy with his effort, even though he does not do this basic recording in lieu of drawing up stratigraphic cross sections of the various layers encountered. He does, however, keep records of what was found and where.
Fourteen chapters make up Part II – The Artifacts. This section that will get the most attention from collectors, because Dancy presents what he found here in a series of topical chapters that include coinage, weights, buttons and buckles. His presentation on pipe stems is very good and draws heavily from archaeological material to help interpret them. Since he spends much time with trash pits, he provides sections on non-metal artifacts including glass and ceramics. For the Civil War collector, he includes a short section on post-colonial artifacts.
Part III deals with cleaning, documentation and ethics. The first two chapters are pretty basic discussions of cleaning materials without damaging them. The chapter on documentation is interesting because Dancy gives many of his finds to the landowners because they are interested in them. He records materials by site rather than type. He photographs the artifacts and sites where he works and when, after they have been cleaned and stabilized. This recording is computerized and represents a solid data base of historical information. This sort of depth has been made possible by development of digital cameras and GPS locational systems to put artifacts back with their sites.
Dancy also publishes a lot of material in relic hunter magazines and posts from detectorist forums. He maintains les of these documentary efforts and says that this text is the ultimate presentation of his finds.
Dancy’s display is more personal and cluttered than often sparse museum displays, but mass has a quality of its own. There is a Civil War metal detector museum (White Oak, in Falmouth, Va.) open to the public where D.P. Newton and a host of local collectors present their collections and research in similar fashion.
His discussion of ethics is simply stated in the introduction to chapter 22 as “Always do the right thing.” He presents his own code of ethics and his last statement that one should not pursue the hobby for monetary gain mirrors archaeological standards. He advocates reporting sites to local historical authorities and suggests reporting illegal activity. His cooperation with archaeologists has resulted in significant finds and represents a continuation of the efforts first made at the Little Big Horn that are now being practiced in Europe, Britain, and most states.
Part IV is a recapitulation of Dancy’s work titled “Best Sites and Finds” that represent the rare items as well “memorable trash pits” he has found.
Some Appendices are a surprise because they include key identification marks on clay pipes, mint and assayer marks, and how to preserve coins and iron artifacts through electrolysis as well as a coin inventory, tool check list, and three research case studies. The Index allows rapid searching for artifact types and some sites.
Some professional archaeologists will be appalled at excavation site photos and this may turn them away from using this text. That would be a mistake, as there is a lot of very useful information for even experienced metal detectorists and professional archaeologists contained here. The photography is outstanding and presents key artifacts in clear illustrations to aid archaeologists and collectors in identifying finds. Archaeologists routinely use texts on specific artifact types (canteens, bullets and buttons, for example) recovered by antiquarians, relic hunters, and collectors because they represent the broad scale of material culture. Here is much of the same in a single text, collected by one person in Tidewater Virginia.
Larry Babits is, among other things, a rear rank private in the First Maryland Infantry and formerly Director of the Program in Maritime Studies at East Carolina University. He worked on Civil War wreck sites including the USS Otsego, Maple Leaf, Star, and CSS ram Neuse. His main areas of interest are the private American soldier and musketry.