“Ransack a Historic Site” Weekened is what I call it

Ransacking.  What does that mean?

past tense: ransacked; past participle: ransacked
  1. go hurriedly through (a place) stealing things and causing damage.

I say that word aptly fits a caption for photo:


The photo was taken on November 14 of last year.  The location is on the Brandy Station battlefield, at a site which I will not disclose.  The site is owned by a preservation organization and is not open to relic hunting or other similar activity.  The holes were left by a “digger” who felt the need to step onto posted, marked, and preserved land in order to “get a piece of history” to hold in their hand.

Coincidentally, on the same day at another place on the Brandy Station battlefield, I took this photo:

Brandy Station 011

I normally try to “frame out” people when taking photos of Civil War battlefields, for functional reasons (as those make better illustrations for blog posts).  But in this case, the subject was the individuals in the photo.  These were participants in the Diggin’ In Virginia (DIV) XXXII, held on November 13-15, 2015.  And as you can see in the foreground, the ground was giving up many long held secrets that day.

I cannot state for a fact that the individual who dug the preserved, posted area was involved with the DIV event. But the timing is far too coincidental for this to be random happenstance.  Furthermore it is not the first time that myself or others have noticed this sort of coincidental occurrence. Since many of the DIV participants look for “bragging rights” about their finds, there is some desire to show some exciting items retrieved from the ground.  So clearly there is motivation for some to go “off the reservation”, if I may, and loot areas that are not part of the event… not to mention legally off-limits.  But the nature of the event and the hobby is that those offenses are covered up (… perhaps the ONLY thing these people are likely to leave buried, ironically…).  Nobody wants to discuss the illegal aspects of the hobby.  Just much shouting about “nectar” retrieved where the machine registers a beep.

Earlier this winter, I was contacted by an individual asking for a “provenance” assessment on some artifacts.  The items included friction primers and a rifled projectile fragment of a particular type.  The individual didn’t want to disclose the exact location.  But the contact asked if I could confirm that a particular battery had a particular type of projectile at the battle of Brandy Station.  The writer was very excited at “the prospect of having a piece of history that could tell the story of the battle!”

With measured words, I responded. Because of the nature of the removal, those artifacts ceased to be artifacts at the moment of removal.  Period.  No matter how great and wonderful the item might be, it is no longer an artifact when its archaeological context is disturbed. Only if surveyed, documented, and analyzed in-situ, does it remain an artifact.  Anyone with a Archaeology 101 class behind them, or more than an hour watching “Oak Island” on the History Channel, knows this well.  Thus the story, which might have been teased out of those items when they were artifacts, was forever lost.  Irretrievably lost.  Any value of the items was as scrap metal, unless the owner attempt to “snake oil” a prospective buyer.

The other aspect of this, which has impact beyond just the value of what is now essentially scrap metal, is that the site itself was injured due to the ransacking.  The artifacts in the ground were components of the history that occurred on that ground.  When those of us mindful of history go to those sites with a mind to designate and preserve, we use those artifacts as the source material which validates other research.  All too often we are confronted with a conundrum… we know the site was important in an event such as a battle, but to prove such beyond doubt one needs to tie artifacts specifically to the event.  Otherwise, one might well say the battle happened over at … say… that fence row… or maybe at the other one.  Those sort of suppositions are best supported by documented archaeological surveys.  Unfortunately, without the artifacts, there is no story.  And without the benefit of supporting artifacts as sources, things such as National Register nominations, which would help secure matching grants for preservation, tend to go flat.

I bring all this up today for consideration for a reason.  In a couple of weeks, another DIV event will be held on the Brandy Station battlefield.  As before, the event is on private property (if you didn’t know, these events play on the margins in the legality of easements and such… but I’ll save that for another day).  While I cannot speak strongly enough about the damage the DIV events have done to ransack the history of Culpeper County, I also have to say there’s little I can do about it but complain.

But I would call upon the organizers and the leaders of the hobby to do more to police their own.  Scenes such as this should not occur:


That’s our shared history and heritage being ransacked (and in this particular case looting and trespassing to boot!).  The “hobby” should identify the individuals who perpetrate acts such as this and make very public examples of them.  But I’m not holding my breath… the is a hobby predicted on taking, no matter what the implications.  All I can say to those who participate in such is, “then please go prove me wrong.”  Name names.  Demonstrate where some punitive action is taken. Or provide evidence that will lead to prosecution where a crime occurs.

Better still, why not help preservation of these sites instead of ransacking … and thus sabotaging efforts those of us who want the stories to be told.

(Photos courtesy of Clark “Bud” Hall.)


14 thoughts on ““Ransack a Historic Site” Weekened is what I call it

  1. Craig,
    Why couldn’t we ask for volunteers to come out and stand on the ground to oversee and protect the preserved areas on the next DIV? Of course, this would be up to the preservation owners, and whether or not they would prefer or not prefer an action like this… It does sound that the site is being stolen blind…

    I, for one, would be willing to participate in such an action…

    Food for thought.

    • Scott, such might be a positive effort. However, there are some legalities involved. The sites themselves are supposed to be closed after dark (liability being the main driver of that restriction). The preservation site owners have a system in place to monitor the site. But they cannot be everywhere. Furthermore to improve the system in order to “catch” this sort of activity, they would need to invest money which is sorely needed towards other preservation efforts.

      I circle back to the source of the problem. Why do we need to dig up that which need not be disturbed?

  2. I First Understood The Concept Of Loosing History At The Chaco Canyon When I Visited Their Museum.
    They Explained It All In Their Displays.

    Also The Knowledge Gained By Treating The Big Horn Battlefield As A Forensic Site, Rewrote The Books.

    It’s Unconscionable After That, Go Dig ‘Em Up !! Would Be Allowed Anywhere

  3. Thanks Craig for bringing these issues to light. I hope any area that is being used for the “dig” that is under DHR easement (or any other easement) will be investigated. as any relic hunting is pretty much prohibited by any cultural easement.

  4. Craig, I have seen some of the best of both groups while working with the Metal Detector Field Schools at Montpelier under the auspices of their Archaeological Department. I had the pleasure of helping to create some of the videos you’ll see on their web site. It was very uplifting to watch the barriers and misperceptions of both communities fall away almost immediately. I would say they both truly learned from each other and contributed to the shared goals of the field school, which was a major contribution and helped Montpelier interpret their site at a more efficient and faster pace than they might have been able to do otherwise. And all of the detectorists that participated went away with a more accurate appreciation of what archaeology is and why archaeologists do what they do in the way that they do it. Those detectorists are creating a “viral” effect for that understanding in their home communities around the nation (like Scott Clark). I think you will find that more and more detectorists will be open to helping you police the hobby if you approach them in an open manner. As a layman who is something of an outsider to both groups, yet as someone who has a fascination of what both groups do, I see an evolution happening in the hobby now. It is much like those photos you see of bass fisherman 100 years ago with dozens of fish strung up in a photo, versus the bass fisherman of today who mainly practice catch and release. Perhaps I am being too optimistic, but I think there is a lot of common ground for conversation between the 2 groups when both sides begin from a position of common respect. It may not lead to a perfect solution, but it will likely make things better for all concerned. Good luck, and thank you for bringing the recent trespassing to light.

  5. “Because of the nature of the removal, those artifacts ceased to be artifacts at the moment of removal. Period. No matter how great and wonderful the item might be, it is no longer an artifact when its archaeological context is disturbed. Only if surveyed, documented, and analyzed in-situ, does it remain an artifact. Anyone with a Archaeology 101 class behind them…. knows this well.”

    Your comment about telling the individual that his Civil War relic was simply scrap metal demonstrates how deeply out of touch you are on this issue. You continue by falsely claiming that everyone with rudimentary knowledge of archaeology knows that as though simply pretending it to be so will make it so. Indeed, the primary problem that leads to looting and negative impacts to sites is the fact that artifacts maintain value in and of themselves. While most people do realize that valuable information is forever lost when removing artifacts without carefully and properly recording all contextual information that does not erase considerable value in the artifact itself. That is what everybody actually knows, including professionals and museums.

    • I’ve been away this week on vacation (which regular readers will note as an uncharacteristic absence of postings).

      To your point, I would say that you are not understanding the point being made in this post. Specifically in the passage you mention, I am taking exception to those who do NOT document their finds, do NOT offer any background information, and yet contact someone such as myself seeking some historical identification. My point is indeed valid, in touch, and what we’d call “cold hard reality.”

      Say I picked up a No. 2 pencil while visiting Key West… and say I contacted a historian familiar with Hemingway. What could they say? Other than, “it’s a pencil.” Can that pencil be an “artifact”? Not without context.

      You see, sending me a photo of friction primers with the background of a blank sheet of paper, and no other context, leads me to a negative conclusion. Much like the dentist being pressed by George Costanza to match Jon Voight’s bite marks. Such is a meaningless exercise in speculation. Rather, the discipline of history involves placement of facts within context of events. Without the context, there is no discipline.

      Now you may not agree. You may contend that those friction primers must have some connection with the past. But I would simply point out that everything has some connection with the past. Even that aluminum can your next cold beverage will dispense from. Does that make it valuable?

    • I don’t buy or sell artifacts whether they are documented or otherwise. I want to make that clear as I comment here. I have also never used a metal detector outside of a cheap one I passed over my own back yard.

      I have read your article and comments too carefully to misunderstand what you wrote so I must simply disagree. I support you and anyone else who takes exception to those who don’t document finds or withhold information when requesting expert identification, but that does not make the artifacts they possess valueless. I openly agreed that the value of items is impacted without proper documentation. When one expert refuses to render expert opinion on items with unknown or withheld documentation that won’t prevent the next expert from doing the same. It certainly won’t prevent the individual from assigning their own opinion to any missing detail. You may have a lot more information about the individual than you shared with us, so I am speaking in general. At the end of the day guys who have Civil War era artifacts are fully capable of exhibiting artifact X as being from battle field Y and, unfortunately, the collecting community (if only the buyers and sellers) will be willing to assign values to such relics. I believe that this needs to be acknowledged and directly addressed.

      The pencil and aluminum can examples detract from a sensible argument because each is easy to obtain for a couple of pennies in today’s US culture unless extraordinary circumstances, as you suggested, make such items greatly atypical. A Civil War battle field claim (I meant to use the word “claim” because that is all that is probably required within the collector community) pinned to a 160 year old military artifact provides the necessary extraordinary circumstance sought by collectors. I can’t tell if you really don’t see the difference between pencils, aluminum cans, and highly collectible and rare relics associated with America’s greatest war whether they be documented to your specifications or otherwise, or if you just wish that others can’t.

    • Thomas, I disagree with your assessment. There is a definition for the word “artifact.” Removing context from and object removes the quality of what makes an artifact. If you don’t see that, or can’t agree upon that definition, then perhaps you had best just agree to disagree. Thanks.

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