Metal detectors are the unsung heroes of the archaeologists’ toolkit. Many think of them as a tool for looters, hobbyists, and those seeking to strike it rich at the beach or in the gold fields of the world. But they can be put to great use on many kinds of archaeology sites.
We have two very fine metal detectors that we use in a variety of settings. The Minelab Quattro MP is a multi-frequency instrument that can be tuned to filter out the signal from particularly conductive soils. This instrument is pretty high-tech, as metal detectors go. The Fisher detector is rather crude in comparison, but it is very reliable and simple to operate and interpret.
Metal detectors are most commonly used at historic-era archaeology sites, including around standing houses, in the areas where log cabins once stood, and in refuse dumping areas. While hobbyists tend to set their detectors to filter out the signals from iron objects, most archaeology-based metal detector surveys are systematic all-metal surveys. The metal detector is moved back and forth across the site in straight corridors, usually spaced at 2-5 meter intervals. All detected objects are flagged, excavated, and mapped in using a global positioning system or a total station.
Battlefields are a very common setting in which to use metal detector surveys. In fact, some would argue that metal detectors are the most appropriate tool for properly surveying battlefields. And it is hard to argue with the many published examples that show this to be true (see for example Doug Scott’s fine work on many sites all over the United States, and beyond). OVAI has employed its metal detectors on Civil War battlefields in West Virginia, at Civil War mustering camps, and on historic-era cabin and farmstead sites.