It seemed like a great idea to spend spring break a month ago learning how to metal detect at Montpelier in Virginia. It was a good excuse to get outside, learn a new surveying technique, and get to see James Madison’s house.
And then it snowed. And not a little bit of snow, but a lot of snow. So much snow that we couldn’t even get to the site we were supposed to be surveying for two days.
This, however, gave us plenty of time to tour Montpelier and even go on a side trip to Monticello. We did the two tours almost back to back, with a brief break in the middle for lunch. But it allowed us to do a direct comparison between the two historic houses, their tours, and their archaeology programs and interpretation. In general, the histories of people other than James Madison were incorporated better at Montpelier than the stories of people other than Thomas Jefferson were incorporated at Monticello. The interpretation at Montpelier felt more inclusive and was better at presenting a picture of the plantation as a whole.
Once the snow melted enough to begin the metal detecting, we bundled up and headed out to the woods. The snow that covered the site had been shoveled to the side by the archaeological interns who are employed at Montpelier. The next step for the site was to lay out a grid, creating 10 foot by 10 foot squares marked by orange flags. Once the whole grid was laid about (about 100 square feet), we began the metal detecting process. There were two professional metal detectorists, who were teaching three of us who had never detected before what to do. Metal detecting seems like a simple enough process, but no one tells you about the background noise you hear when you put that headset on. It is very loud, and hearing the difference between background noise and an actual metal object is not easy. But there is a difference in the sounds, and that was what we were looking for. We covered the 10 foot by 10 foot squares one at a time – marking all of the hits (that’s when you hear a metal object) with blue flags. Then the professional metal detectorist would come in and check our work. In general, it seemed that those of us who were learning could hear about half of the metal objects that were in each square. But we improved as the day went on. The snow continued to melt, and by the end of the day, the site was covered in blue flags and an ever-increasing amount of mud. The flags were then counted, and recorded on a site map, so we would know how many hits were in each 10 x 10 foot square.
This data will be used to determine where excavation units should be located during our advanced archaeological field school this summer.