The grass was still damp with morning dew when I heard the change of tone in the headphones that covered my 12-year-old ears. After I carefully placed the Radio Shack metal detector next to my feet with the detection ring pointing to the spot where I first heard the warning, I knelt down and withdrew my Dad’s WWII Cattaraugus 225 knife that I carried on my belt. Gently sliding the knife into the earth, I carefully cut an approximately 3-inch circle of turf that descended about 2 inches. I held my breath as I eased the cone-shaped piece of earth free.
Who hasn’t dreamed of buried treasure? Among collectors, the sense of “something for nothing” can be an all-consuming drive, sometimes overpowering any notions of “preserving history.” Believe me, I know it all too well.
The desire to discover something valuable is what drove me out on that Minnesota morning so many decades ago when I was scoured the public park next to the county jail with my $25 Radio Shack metal detector. It was the same desire that pushed me to hundreds of antique shops, flea markets and garage sales all through my college years. That same passion reemerged in the early days of eBay, when I spent long hours searching for miscategorized or misidentified “sleepers.” “Something for nothing” is a powerful drug! And like any drug, it can be used for good just as easily as it can sink a person.
I don’t know if I have ever satisfied my urge to go metal detecting. As long as I knew that the devices existed, I have dreamed of how exciting it would be to live near a Civil War battlefield. I have imagined spending all of my time listening for that change in pitch that would indicate a buried artillery projectile, belt plate, an expended Minie bullet.
It wasn’t until I was working as a curator in northeastern Wisconsin that I ever considered the ramifications of metal-detecting. Having the privilege of working with trained archeologists, I learned the methodical and scholarly approach of a controlled dig. It was then that I began to understand the potential of information that could be gained from an artifact left, or recorded, in situ.
For generations, professional archeologists have decried treasure hunters, metal detectors and diggers, all of whom fall under the archeologists’ derogative catch-all, “pot-holers.” The hobby is nothing new, people have been digging up historic relics for hundreds of years. Napoleon’s army lost no time looting tombs in Egypt. Souvenir hunters descended on the Gettysburg battlefield within a blink of General Lee’s army withdrawing into Maryland. During WWI, picking up spent brass artillery shells, decorating them, and selling them back to soldiers became a lucrative business long before an armistice was emplaced. Because of these early relic recoveries, many objects still exist today that would have otherwise become one with the dirt.
For many years, I could never reconcile the idea of leaving artifacts in the ground just to rot away. If it was there to be discovered, I reasoned, it was our obligation to uncover it. If a person happened to uncover a brass CSA belt buckle worth several hundred dollars, well, that was just a little bonus for the effort! No harm in discovering something valuable, right?
I haven’t had the opportunity, yet, to live next to a Civil War battlefield, but I still dream about the possibilities. I will admit, though, my attitude about digging relics has changed a bit through the years.
Location, Location, Location
If location is everything in real estate, imagine how important it is in the study of historic sites such as battlefields, camp sites or routes of troops movements. I had not really considered location to be more important than adding value to an excavated artifact. “U.S. oval belt plate dug at Antietam in 1962” has a lot more collector and historic appeal than “Dug U.S. oval belt plate.” Beyond that obvious addition to monetary and historic value, though, I hadn’t really considered location.
That is, until I read Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle, by Richard A Fox (published in 1993 by University of Oklahoma Press). Though the battlefield where George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry met their demise in 1876 had been scoured for relics, most of what was taken were the large, obvious souvenirs: Carbines, rifles, war clubs, arrows, uniforms and accouterments. The souvenir hunters left behind small relics, perceived to be worthless: empty or misfired cartridge cases. Soon, the prairie grass overtook these relics, sending them below the surface, safe from later generations of souvenir seekers. Meanwhile, the myth of Custer’s heroic last stand grew in the national imagination.
The myth was shattered, however, by archeologist Richard Allan Fox Jr., who carefully dug and plotted the below-ground relics to demonstrate that the troopers’ end came amid terror and disarray, with no determined fighting and little firearm resistance. Using innovative and standard archaeological analyses of bullets, spent cartridges, and other material data, combined with numerous Indian eye-witness accounts and additional primary sources, Fox’s book replayed the battle—not in terms of the heroic mythology that had grown since the battle, but in astonishing detail, that identified combat positions and tracked soldiers and Indians across the battlefield. The reality of Custer’s defeat, was far different from the legends I had learned as a little boy. This eye-opening to actual history was only possible by systematic analysis of the relics found below the surface. This book changed the way I viewed metal-detecting and relic digging.
A BONE TOO FAR…
I really hadn’t given relic digging too much thought in recent years. I am aware that metal detectors have come a long way from the days when I slowly swung my Radio Shack detector back and forth listening for a beep. I have witnessed Civil War collectors place premiums on relics with traceable provenance, not only to a battlefield or camp site, but specific locations at these places. Books have been published on excavated relics from Gettysburg, Waterloo and various other battlefields. A much greater emphasis has been placed on recording the history associated with dug relics.
Despite these advances in the hobby, the allure of “something for nothing” is still wildly appealing. It is no wonder, then, that the current trend among television producers is to develop an array of “treasure discovery” shows. Antiques Road Show and Pawn Stars have carved a niche in the historic landscape. Eager to build on the momentum, networks have experimented with a variety of ideas.
Recently, National Geographic Society (or if you want to sound like you are 18 years old and hip, “Nat Geo”) took a plunge into the “something for nothing” market when they filmed several episodes in Eastern Europe for a show it had called, “Nazi War Diggers.”
Though filming is complete and the debut in the UK scheduled for May, the National Geographic Society announced last Monday, it would “indefinitely” pull the planned television series on unearthing Nazi war graves after days of blistering criticism from archeologists and others who said the show handled the dead with macabre disrespect. The show was to have been broadcast globally except in the United States.
National Geographic Channel issued a statement last Friday defending the show and saying the criticism was premature, based on early publicity materials that “did not provide important context about our team’s methodology.” The channel pulled those materials from its website and no trace of the show can be found there.
Something for nothing is darn appealing. Apparently National Geographic realized that when they said that none of the items dug up during filming would be sold. Rather, the items would be donated to “war museums.” The critics, however, found a posting on a Wehrmacht Awards, in which one of the shows stars boasted about locating a Latvian helmet this past June and was preparing it for sale.
“This is treasure hunting not archaeology,” said Tony Pollard, director of the Center for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, who has appeared on National Geographic programs and other documentaries about unearthing war dead. “I have seen human remains brandished like trophies before, but in dodgy Youtube videos. The trailer on the Internet was absolutely shocking, and very damaging for National Geographic.” That trailer featured the show’s “stars” holding up bones and skulls of German war dead. Ironically, it has been removed from Youtube, “due to a copyright claim by National Geographic Channel.”
I find it hard to understand how the revered National Geographic Society could possibly condone an obvious sensational attempt to use the bones of fallen soldiers to further their profits. But like I said, “Something for nothing” is darn appealing. Worse yet, they didn’t have the nads to simply say, “Oops. We screwed up and are darn sorry!” Instead, their official statement claimed, “While we support the goal of the series, which is to tell the stories of long lost and forgotten soldiers…” it takes “seriously the questions that have been asked.”
Okay, digging graves, plundering the relics, and listing them for sale… I get it. Some people will hide behind the ghosts of history to make a buck. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot I can do about that. But I will say, it isn’t my “cup ‘o tea.” Do I want to still live near a Civil War or World War I battlefield? You bet I do! Would I still break every clump of dirt that I turned in my garden? Darn right! But, if I uncovered bones, I hope I have the good sense to not brandish them for the camera or brag about how I could sell them. Clearly, the National Geographic Society didn’t come to this realization before they flew a crew to the Baltic States to crudely dig up the remains of German soldiers.
Oh, and for the record, what did I pry from the ground in the park next to the county jail so many years ago? A Pepsi bottle cap.
Preserve the History,
John Adams-Graf, editor
Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine
Archeosoup Productions produced a 20-minute interview entitled “So…What’s Wrong with Nazi War Diggers?” and posted it to Youtube. It is available at: