By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006
The buzz began in the chow line. "Did you hear?" asked one relic hunter.
"Yeah. A Mississippi plate," said another. "Absolutely perfect."
The proud new owner of the Confederate belt plate embossed with an eagle held out his treasure on his dirt-caked palm.
Looking on, a man with a long beard and flannel shirt whistled low. "That's $12,000 right there."
It was the prize find of a three-day relic hunt called Diggin' in Virginia, one of a new breed of organized digs in the history-rich state. More than 200 relic hunters in camouflage hauled metal detectors up and down the hills of a Culpeper County farm one weekend this spring. They'd paid a couple of hundred bucks each -- and cleaned up.
"You pull a Minie ball out of the ground, and the first thing that strikes you: The last hands that touched this were the hands of a Civil War soldier," dig participant Steve Silvia said of a Civil War-era bullet. "It's about as close as you can get to stepping back in time."
But to alarmed archaeologists, these "safari" digs -- though perfectly legal -- represent the wholesale destruction of the past. Stripping sites of their artifacts also strips the ability to learn what stories they could tell.
"These digs are like reading a book, ripping the pages out as you read and setting them on fire," said Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state's Department of Historic Resources. "It's an outrage."
A Mississippi belt plate alone will tell you nothing, Kilpatrick said. A belt plate whose position is documented in context could help reconstruct the flow of a historic fight, give insight into military strategy or, at a campsite, illuminate the living conditions of the soldiers there.
Members of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists have begun protesting to state legislators and other officials and are enlisting the aid of local historic preservation groups. They've also contacted landowners to get them to stop the digs.
Last year in the state's General Assembly, lawmakers considered a measure that would have required relic hunters to get written permission from landowners before digging, and to catalogue and report what they found. The bill also would have established that relics belonged to the state, not any individual.
It was resoundingly crushed in committee.
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said he got hundreds of angry e-mails and letters for sponsoring the bill. "I was not prepared for what happened to me," he said. "The floodgates opened."
Yes, relic hunters concede, there are the bad guys -- the ones who use night-vision goggles and sneak into protected sites at night to dig things up, or the ones who sell what they find on eBay.
But there are others who have such a passion for the past, particularly the Civil War, that they write books on what they find. Some take photographs or use the Global Positioning System to pinpoint what they dug up. Others have donated hundreds of hours to help archaeologists -- once using their metal detectors to find the site of a Civil War battle near Chantilly that archaeologists had missed.
"I found this is more honest," said William Leigh, a Virginia archaeologist-turned-relic-dealer who is a regular on relic hunts. "These people are in touch with history. Archaeologists could learn from the passion of these people."
Although archaeologists fighting the digs say they understand the thrill of finding an artifact, they point to the excavation of the site of 1876's Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer's Last Stand, in Montana. For more than a century, historians held to the U.S. military's version of events: that Custer rushed in for glory and was crushed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. They discounted the Native Americans' very different memory.
National Park Service archaeologist Doug Scott, who enlisted the help of relic hunters, spent years painstakingly mapping where each bullet was found. Using microscopic analysis of the firing-pin marks, he traced each bullet to a particular gun and tracked its movement on the battlefield. He discovered that the Native Americans were right. Custer had followed military procedure. He was simply outmanned, outgunned and outfought that day.
"Evidence doesn't lie," Scott said. "History may be accurate. But archaeology is precise."
When a relic hunter dug up 800 cartridges on private property just off the battlefield for souvenirs, Scott was beside himself. "We're missing the part of the battle that tells us how the warriors and the soldiers all got there."
The same weekend as Diggin' in Virginia, 200 relic hunters roamed Fort Powhatan on the James River during the Texas-based North South Hunt, jockeying to see who could mine the most Revolutionary and Civil War goodies. (The same group holds the Grand National Relic Shootout and the Git R Dun hunts in Virginia.)
The fort, southeast of Richmond in Prince George County, was home to one of the few regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. On May 21, 1864, they, along with a Pennsylvania artillery regiment, beat back a Confederate cavalry assault.
How did they fight together? How did they live together? With the artifacts dug up, the answers to those questions are lost.
"That story's gone," said Barbara Heath, an archaeologist leading the fight for the Council of Virginia Archaeologists.
In their defense, relic hunters say that many of the places they dig have been ploughed for 140 years and that artifacts have been scattered. "There is no context," said Diggin' in Virginia organizer John Kendrick -- a point some archaeologists dispute.
If these sites are so important, relic hunters say, why haven't archaeologists staked their claim?
Phillip Dean manages Fort Powhatan, which has been in his family since the 1950s. Dean said rent from a relic hunting group helps pay the property taxes. He said no one in his family knows much about the history there, nor have archaeologists ever contacted them about it.
"You'd think folks like that would pool their resources and buy some property if they thought it was that important," Dean said. "This country was founded on private property rights, as I recall."
Archaeologists argue that there's not enough money to excavate every important site. And as development in the Washington area pushes farther out, most archaeologists spend their workdays in a race against time, excavating what they can or, more commonly, doing the mundane work required by federal and state law to see whether anything's in the ground at all before a road is built or a shopping mall goes up.
So if archaeologists can't dig, they want the undisturbed sites left alone. To relic hunter John Craig, that sounds nuts. "This stuff's just rotting in the ground," he said.
Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology with the Montpelier Foundation, found some middle ground when he began to work with relic hunters to excavate parts of Manassas National Battlefield Park and other projects. Still, he said, the magnitude of the big digs left him "horrified."
The owner of Brandy Rock Farm in Culpeper County, where thousands of artifacts were mined on the Diggin' in Virginia hunt, is a psychiatrist. "Archaeologists and relic hunters both love history so much," said Merrill Stock, watching the diggers crowd for a better view of the prized Mississippi plate. "I don't understand why there has to be so much controversy."
One day in the summer of 1863, a Confederate soldier from Mississippi left behind his prized belt plate, worn only by elite members of the state militia, in a camp on Brandy Rock Farm.
We will never know why.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.