My personal take on relic hunting

At least two or three times a year, I have cause to think about the practice of Civil War relic hunting.  Usually when a story about some “digger” who’s done the hobby a great disservice hits the news cycles.  Perhaps with some nudging from the sesquicentennial, there’s been a few stories on the wire lately.

Really, I try to be a fence sitter on this issue.  But it is a hard call.

In some ways I can relate to the desire to know what is buried beneath.  And certainly I can relate to the desire to piece together the Civil War story that has escaped us over the generations.  And of course there is the fact that most “diggers” are interested in Civil War history just like me.

On the other hand, there are many arguments for just leaving things where they lay.

One reason behind battlefield preservation is to set aside the land for later generations – not just for battlefield tours but also for research.  That research often takes the form of archeological excavations.  As Andy Hall recently pointed out, there is much to learn from a proper examination of the artifacts left on a battlefield.

Another reason we preserve the battlefields is out of respect for those who fought there.  The belt buckles, cartridge box plates, sabers, and bullets didn’t get on the field by themselves.  In some cases, the men who carried those items there are still there.  As if we need a reminder, recall a few years back the discovery of the remains of a soldier on the well-known grounds of Antietam.

Yet we all know there are plenty of places that aren’t preserved, that probably should be.  Living in the “seat of the war” and one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, I’ve seen the bulldozers move over historic sites.  I’ve walked over construction sites and found, while walking the sites to personally assess the land being transformed, three musket balls just laying on ground torn up by the dozers.  No fancy equipment needed… just walk through and pick them up.  Personally I have no need for some reliquary or shrine to satisfy my Civil War itch.  I’d rather see the artifacts on display in a museum.  So I gave those items to the respective local historical organization.

In some ways I can understand a “digger” who’s one step in front of the dozers.  Heck, I actually hope the guy finds something important!  Perhaps so important that it causes the development to pause for some serious investigation. Honestly so many of those sites deserve better examination. I hear a lot of relic hunters lamenting the artifacts left in the ground as “looting by leaving” or some similar phrase.  I really don’t see that.  Archeologists still pull Greek and Roman artifacts out of the ground, so I think we have plenty of centuries before our Civil War sabers disappear to oxidation.  There’s always time for a proper recovery of the artifacts.

The deadline we face is that of the developer’s schedule, not deterioration.  I’d love to see more “diggers” step forward with information about artifacts found in front of the construction equipment.  I’d love to see them help make a case for smart development with respect to the historical sites…. and then join in with the full examination of the site by proper excavation.  After all, it is about the history isn’t it?  Nobody makes money off those corroded bullets right?  (And to be fair, that is what has happened in Stafford County, Virginia.)

But beyond that line, delineated by the developer’s stakes, I can’t understand the zeal to go digging up on land that is already preserved – either inside an established park, set aside by a preservation organization, or even within a preservation easement.  Even worse, why would anyone dig up a known grave site?

h/t to Harry.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “My personal take on relic hunting

  1. Hi Craig,
    Your points as always are well thought out. I also sit on the fence on relic hunting, mainly because I know of very historic minded hunters.
    D.P. Newton dug up thousands of artifacts throughout Stafford County, mapped the camps where the relics were found, and created a museum so others would know the story. Glenn Trimmer is a relic Hunter who has spearheaded the new Stafford Civil War Park….and there are a host of relic hunters in Fairfax that have unbelievable knowledge of where things were before the subdivisions came. When done right and with a conscience relic hunting can expand our knowledge. Unfortunately for every ‘good’ relic hunter there are many who only care about plundering for artifacts to sell. They are usually the ones digging at parks and raiding graves and are the ones that give relic hunting a bad name.

    1. Chuck, The efforts at Stafford CW Park were the actions I had in mind at the end of the next-to-last paragraph. Thanks for passing along the names involved. That’s the model to follow, in my opinion too.

  2. Craig, this is a complex topic, but your thoughtful comments add focus and perspective.

    As for me, I am opposed to all relic hunting, anywhere and anytime. My reasons for this have everything to do with my personal view that battlefields are sacred places–and must never be disturbed, in any way.

    Is this a rational, practical viewpoint? Many would say no, and would argue this position is both foolish and naive

    But I don’t really care what “many” think about my point of view.. ‘

    I believe what I believe, and this is why I am a unyielding preservationist to the core.


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