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Virginia consider outlawing relic hunting on battlefield land

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  • Virginia consider outlawing relic hunting on battlefield land

    Nearly every day, on one of America’s Civil War battlefields, some tangible bit of history is erased. Relic hunters were at work, unearthing the metallic evidence of warfare.

    That’s due to legal loopholes and the fact that most battlefield acreage has not been preserved.

    In Virginia, though, a proposal to discourage metal detecting on preserved battlefield land is gaining traction in the General Assembly.

    On Friday, the House of Delegates voted 100-0 to approve a bill by Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, to make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to disturb, damage or remove “any object of antiquity” on battlefields owned or held in easement by a private preservation group.

    Relic hunting on state-owned battlefields, such as New Market, Sailor’s Creek and High Bridge, is illegal. Ditto for Civil War sites preserved by the National Park Service.

    But no such protection applies to land preserved by nonprofits, such as the American Battlefield trust, Fredericksburg-based Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and Richmond Battlefields Association.

    Should Runion’s bill become law, it would plug a hole in the Virginia Antiquities Act, said Keven Walker, CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

    “This legislation would create a legal deterrent to illegal relic hunting and disturbance of archaeological sites on battlefield land owned by nonprofits such as ours,” Walker said in an interview Friday. “Battlefield preservation is a public-private partnership, really. A lot of the work is done by private entities working with state and federal agencies. And their land isn’t afforded the same protection under Virginia law. Looting and unauthorized disturbance of archaeological sites in Virginia happens on a fairly regular basis.”

    Hence, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation made fixing the law its top legislative priority this year, he said. The foundation protects nearly 6,000 acres in the eight-county Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District.

    The House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, held a hearing Wednesday on Runion’s bill, via Zoom.

    Walker, Virginia historian Clark B. Hall and American Battlefield Trust President David Duncan were among those who testified or shared statements with Plum’s committee.

    Hall, who lives in Culpeper County, heartily applauded legislators for trying to make it illegal to loot artifacts on battlefield acreage owned or preserved by private, nonprofit groups.

    “I am out on the privately-owned Brandy Station battlefield most every week, if not several times a week, and I often observe the holes that relic hunters have dug (at night). They are like daggers in my heart,” Hall said in an interview. “I know—probably better than most—that soldiers, blue and gray, still rest beneath that hallowed soil.”

    “There is no question that when we stroll on battlefields, we are also walking in sacred cemeteries,” he said. “Scores of soldiers remain buried today at Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, Kelly’s Ford, Hansbrough’s Ridge and Freeman’s Ford, just to name a few Culpeper battle venues.”

    Duncan, president of the nation’s largest battlefield preservation group, contributed electronically submitted testimony to the discussion.

    “Thousands of acres across the Commonwealth (are) exposed to potentially destructive looting,” Duncan wrote the panel. “Without this HB 2311, archaeological resources that provide important clues to Virginia’s tumultuous past could be lost to history or be irreparably harmed.

    “Preserved battlefields protect open space, serve as ‘outdoor classrooms,’ and are economic engines for local economies, providing jobs and tourism dollars, and generating revenues for state and municipal government coffers,” he continued. “These battlefields are also living memorials to the soldiers who once struggled there. The artifacts that remain beneath these hallowed grounds are equally worthy of preservation and, with advances in ground-penetrating radar and related technology, can bring to life forgotten stories and solve century-old mysteries.”

    Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, also testified at the committee meeting.

    Langan said her agency had no opinion on Runion’s bill.

    But in her testimony, she “confirmed that unauthorized digging is indeed a problem,” Langan said Friday via a spokesman.

    The committee voted 21-0 to approve the measure. Walker particularly thanked Dels. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington; Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock; and Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, for supporting Runion’s bill.

    After Friday’s unanimous vote by the full House, HB2311 was referred to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee for consideration. Sen. Chapman Peterson, D-Fairfax, chairs the committee.

    Countless times, historical questions cannot be answered through documents or first-person descriptions, Walker said. Accounts may be confusing or conflicting. But answers can come through archaeology.

    One can tell by the presence of bullets buried in the soil where a regiment’s battle line stopped during a battle and what kind of troops or what units from what state were there, Walker said.

    “If that record isn’t disturbed, from what the soldiers left behind, we can pinpoint those locations and get a better picture of what occurred during the battle,” he said. “It’s not that different than using forensics information to learn about a crime.”

    For example, Walker noted, archaeologists who teamed up with relic hunters in Montana gleaned in-situ data that transformed historians’ understanding of what happened during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which Gen. George Armstrong Custer perished.

    “Their work completely changed how we understand that battle and dispelled some myths surrounding it,” he said.

    Virginia archaeologist Taft Kiser has worked with relic hunters to survey historical sites, and values their skills and interest in history.

    But he takes a dim view of many hobbyists who metal detect at night or without asking property owners.

    “If you don’t have permission and don’t own the land, it’s theft,” said Kiser, who has been investigating historic sites across the commonwealth since 1984. “Most people don’t even know what is being taken off their land.”

    “You can erase sites by taking stuff,” he continued. “For instance, one of the most desirable things is a soldier’s metal ID tag. It may be the only proof that person and that soldier’s unit was there, the entire record. So if you dig it up, you’re removing part of the story, you are erasing history.”

    “Battles are really fast, intense things and they don’t leave a lot of traces. They’re ephemeral,” Kiser said. “What they leave is a scatter of metal in the ground. Soldiers are dropping stuff as they go, running and moving. So if you collect that material, and don’t record it, that’s gone. That’s the history of the men who were fighting. You can literally erase them.”

    Less than 20 percent of Virginia’s historically significant battlefield land has been preserved.

    The American Battlefield Trust owns nearly 9,000 acres in the state, out of 27,000 acres it has helped preserve.

    "God knows, as many posts as go up on this site everyday, there's plenty of folks who know how to type. Put those keyboards to work on a real issue that's tied to the history that we love and obsess over so much." F.B.

    "...mow hay, cut wood, prepare great food, drink schwitzel, knit, sew, spin wool, rock out to a good pinch of snuff and somehow still find time to go fly a kite." N.B.

  • #2
    As someone in the museum field, I think that's great. Amateur "archaeologists" wreck sites and destroy history. They are also the leading cause of NAGPRA-related heartaches.
    Michael Denisovich

    NPS Volunteer and mainstream living history person, new to this but wanting to be authentic
    Interpreter of US Regulars, early war
    Museum administrator in southern New Mexico


    • #3
      Originally posted by NMVolunteer View Post
      As someone in the museum field, I think that's great. Amateur "archaeologists" wreck sites and destroy history. They are also the leading cause of NAGPRA-related heartaches.
      Professional archaeologist Here. 1,000% agree with you - relic hunting like this removes artifacts from their contexts, scatters artifact collections meaning that they cannot be studied as a whole, often results in the damaging of the artifacts in question, and, as you rightfully said, result in the unnecessary destruction of archaeological sites. "Relic Hunting" is already banned on NPS sites for these justifiable reasons (and many others), and this move is very much a step in the right direction.
      Eric Urbanas

      "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." - Frederick Douglass

      "These men are all talk! What we need is action!" - John Brown


      • #4
        Another archaeologist here.
        (I admittedly don't' work as one and changed to history on my master, but my BA is in medieval archeology)

        As a Dane I find it absurd that it is not already illegal.* Here any protected site is off limits for detecting.
        And since it is easy to look up where there are sites on a online map there is no excuse.

        At none protected sites you need permission by the land owner.
        And you can't dig more than one foot down. (landowners here do not own what is in the ground)

        Anything of valuable metals are automatically considered "Dane fæ" (so belong to the Danish state) and so is anything of historical significant.**

        To make sure that any finds are handed in, anything made of valuable metals will result in a payment of the value of the metal + a bonus for the historical significant of the item.
        This makes sure that no one is likely to melt things down for the metal. And trying to sell on the black market is not worth the afford and the risk of jailtime.

        Most Amateur detectors are members of local clubs that do work and coordinate with the local public museum who got the arkeological responsibility over the area, most are very good at documenting the locations of their finds. And they hand finds in, so the experts can judge if anything is "Dane fæ".

        Amateur detectors can be a huge resource if used correctly. There are a number of cases where artifact have been found in the topsoil on farmed field. That later resulted in proper excavations in the area. And since it is in the top soil, there is really no context other than the location.

        Amateurs have also been used in a few battlefield projects where huge areas have been searched with metal detectors allowing a maps of where bullets have been found. In one case it located a mid 17th century battlefield Where only the general area was known before this project.
        This would have been way way to expensive to do with paid professionals, but a group of Amateur detectors using two weekends managed to search the entire area.

        But I sure hope the battlefields get better legal protection.

        * Obviously from a historical perspective, it makes perfect sense that the "state" is limited in this area in much of the US.
        (Compared to the Nordic countries where the state is a lot more involved in many areas of society)

        ** Jyske lov (The Jutland law) from 1241 make it clear that what belongs to no none belongs to the king.
        This principle have survived in our laws ever since.
        Thomas Aagaard


        • #5
          I just finished earning my certification in field archaeology at Akron U and I agree completely with the sentiments posted above. What really annoys me is the feeble justification from pot hunters who argue that they are somehow preserving the items they loot. When questioned about what happens to the relics after they're gone (what will the family do with them?), I get the deer in the headlights look. On top of it all, maybe 10% can pinpoint a general area where the items were found ... and forget about context, etc. Okay. I'm done with my rant. I'm feeling much better now.
          James Brenner