The 27 historic sites of the National Trust are currently engaged in a focused effort to foster and promote innovations in how we manage our historic buildings and landscapes and how we tell truer, richer stories of American history. And we want to do so in ways that are replicable for other historic sites and house museums, as well as across the broader field of cultural resource management.
The potential for historic sites to serve as labs for innovative practices is vividly demonstrated by a two-year-old program at James Madison’s Montpelier, a Historic Site of the National Trust in Orange, Va., operated by the Montpelier Foundation. Weeklong expeditions bring together archeologists and metal detectorists together to lend their individual expertise—and both the contextual rigor and efficiency of their disciplines—to the process of uncovering new information about the property’s history. These expeditions are part of a larger set of experiential programs at Montpelier that allow the public to spend a week working with trained archeologists on excavations and in the archeology lab.
According to Kat Imhoff, president and CEO of the Montpelier Foundation that co-stewards Montpelier with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Montpelier’s archeology team has always been known for its groundbreaking work at the home of James and Dolley Madison, and I am pleased that we can partner with the metal detector community to locate and preserve sites at Montpelier. The scientific and hobbyist communities have been at odds for too long and this program demonstrates how communities of collaboration can work together to uncover the stories of our past.”
In 2012 the initial metal detecting expedition on the site resulted in the discovery of field slave quarters, so expectations were high when the program resumed in March 2013. Montpelier has cultivated a partnership with Minelab Americas, an international producer of metal detecting equipment, and it provides both promotional assistance and a research grant used for property surveys. During the first metal detector expedition of 2013, metal dectorists came from across the country—from Lexington, Ky., to Chicago, Ill., from Staten Island, N.Y., to Marin County, Calif.,—to spend five days in a carefully composed program of classroom sessions and field surveys at Montpelier.
After lectures on the history of Montpelier, the types of artifacts that might be encountered in field sessions (such as historic nails), and analysis techniques for artifact patterns, the metal detectorists were each paired with a staff member from the Montpelier archeology department for the survey portion of the expedition. The first survey was conducted on Montpelier’s front lawn and then the teams moved on to Chicken Mountain, a 320-acre area at the southern tip of the Montpelier property. Working within a 65' x 65' grid (20m x 20m) that had been laid out in advance by Montpelier archeologists, two-person teams of archeologists and metal detectorists spent three days surveying Chicken Mountain. The results of their work illustrate what is so exciting about this innovative partnership.
Jim Wirth, whose metal detecting usually takes place in California or Cape Cod, was thrilled to discover two Civil War bullets on Chicken Mountain, while working with his partner, archeology intern Jimena Resendiz. Peter and Krisztina Roder discovered an area with a low-density scatter of nails that indicate either a very ephemeral slave quarter or a possible barn/work site. Such sites would easily be overlooked by standard archeological testing techniques that are not able to cover large areas as thoroughly and efficiently. This discovery could help to understand the history of Chicken Mountain more fully and provide important guidance in the management of this area going forward. As the day of the Roder’s discovery wrapped up, Peter explained that he and Krisztina planned to closely follow future investigations at the site. Montpelier archeologists plan to define the site further by using a smaller survey grid, conducting leaf rake surveys that remove organic cover to expose foundations and other surface features, and excavating test units to identify features (such as post holes or foundations) and to determine a more exact date for the site based on artifacts and their associated soil layers.
The metal detecting expeditions are the creation of Matt Reeves, PhD, who is the director of Archeology and Landscape Restoration at Montpelier. After running these programs for two years, Reeves offers the following four suggestions:
1) Metal detector surveys that follow a predetermined, interval-based grid are a much more sensitive, efficient, and less invasive way of locating and testing archeological sites. Very small scatters of nails and other historic materials can be located that allow for the identification of everything from barns to slave quarters that were occupied for a short period of time and left scant evidence of their existence.
2) Involving metal detector enthusiasts in these surveys allows for a meaningful connection with a group that has traditionally been at odds with archeologists regarding the undocumented removal of artifacts from their original soil layers and location. Educating metal detectorists on the importance of artifact context and site preservation through hands-on training allows for a meaningful discussion about how best to locate and document historic artifacts and the sites where they were recovered.
3) An added benefit to working with metal detectorists in such survey is that they bring to the table their years of experience in identifying sites, ability to locate faint metal targets (artifacts), and artifact identification skills. The dialogue and exchange of information involved in survey gives them an equal voice regarding the issues surrounding preservation of sites and encourages open thinking.
4) From working with us on these surveys, metal detectorists are very interested in taking what they have learned (site preservation, context, and the benefits of working with archeologists) to their community and become a new and unexpected constituency in the preservation of sites.
When the archeologists and the metal detectorists were asked how they came to be so passionate about their work that they would spend cold March days on Chicken Mountain discovering Madison-era buttons and plenty of less-glamorous 20th-century metal wire, their answers were all fundamentally the same: They value and are inspired by historic places.
Watching them work together on Chicken Mountain vividly illustrated the definition of innovation that the Historic Sites of the National Trust have adopted from our participation in the Innovation Lab for Museums, led by EmC Arts and supported by the Met Life Foundation and the American Association of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums. Innovation is organizational change that results from a shift in underlying assumptions, is discontinuous from previous practices, and provides new pathways to creating public value.
Interested in partnering with a Historic Site of the National Trust for an innovative project? Please contact Katherine Malone-France, director of Outreach, Education, and Support in the Historic Sites Department at kmalone-france[at]savingplaces.org.
For metal detectorist Scott Clark’s description of his Montpelier expedition experience and a lively conversation on the project from the metal detectorist perspective click here.
Get more information about Montpelier archaeological expeditions.
Click here for more information on the Montpelier metal detector exhibitions.