With the decisive, leafy crunch of God’s gavel, fall is official here in middle Tennessee. The massive hackberry trees in my backyard are dropping their browns and yellows, letting in cool sunshine and stars I’d forgotten about.
But by my desk is a brown paper bag that brings me right back to summer and one of the most intense and surprising metal detecting experiences in my short (nearly three-year) “career” as Dirt Girl. Sometimes I stick my hand in there to hear the tinkles.
Last August, I drove up to northern Michigan to a tiny cabin on The Lake. No, I couldn’t afford it, but I deserved it, so I went. I’d asked the homeowners if I could bring my metal detector and they said sure. There was lots of land around the cabin – and the beach, of course. I could swing all I wanted.
After a two-day drive, I found myself driving down a steep dirt road, then winding through tall pines. I could hear wind and water. The cabin was tiny and perfect.
I wasted no time in getting down to the beach and swinging the Fisher F75 in and out of the shallow water where the waves met the sand.
Pretty quickly, I found this, deep in the wet sand as the sun was going down in end-of-a-movie splendor.
I really, really like it. More on this later.
The next morning I got busy in the woods around the cabin. You know that feeling when there’s absolutely nothing on your schedule except for metal detecting and you have massive permission? Well, it was that feeling. The sun sprinkled through the tall trees. The ground was soft and loamy. No mosquitos. Yum.
Here’s what I expected to find: tin cans, old Matchbox cars from long-ago vacationers, pulltabs. Maybe, if I was lucky, some wheat pennies.
That’s not quite how it worked out.
I headed off down a path that ran parallel to a small bluff overlooking the water. Signals were by no means constant, but they were there. I started digging, pulling out old scraps of metal. Looked like copper, but I wasn’t sure. Also funny little rings, like old washers. And weird twisted pieces. Figured it was all just junk and stuck it in the fanny pack.
Later on, I got locked out of the cabin and the owner, John, came down to help us out (turned out he’d left us the wrong key). I told him I’d been metal detecting, but hadn’t found much.
John’s grandfather had built the cabin nearly 100 years ago and he’d spent much of his boyhood in there playing in those woods. “We used to find tinkling cones in the woods all the time,” he said.
Yes, he explained. The Native people would trade with the French and English soldiers and traders – silver trinkets and scraps of metal in return for beaver pelts. The Native people would sometimes form the scraps of metal into little “cones” that they’d dangle from their clothes.
Hmmm. Cones like this? I asked.
Yes, said John, excitedly, those are tinkling cones.
Inspired, I spent many hours happily exploring the beautiful woods. The little bit of contemporary trash I found (a couple of tin cans, one or two bottle caps, a tube of hair cream or something) was nothing compared to remarkable evidence of the indigenous people who used to live here on this lake, their rich culture in simple harmony with the earth. And evidence of their early contact with the Europeans who, as we all know, changed everything for them.
I was particularly excited to find two large, Colonial flat buttons. I just never expected to find them in Michigan.
Several times, I got some monster signals – real honkers – and dug fairly deep to pull out large pieces of old copper.
Needless to say, there were some pretty serious history rushes coursing thru the old bod.
After a couple of days, I drove to a nearby town where John’s wife, Debbie has a realty office. Debbie loves to MD too and was curious to see what I’d found.
“Whit, what kind of metal detector do you HAVE???” she said when I took the items out of the bag. An artist with a degree in anthropology, Debbie had worked as an interpreter at a local museum and was well aware of the issues that so often pit archaeologists against metal detectorists. Still, she enjoyed detecting from time to time and, like me, was open to hunting areas where no archaeologist was ever likely to go.
What I found particularly interesting was that virtually everything I found was within, say, 50 feet of the bluff overlooking the lake. The further I got from the lake, the less I found. Debbie made the point that for the Native Americans living here, the lake was the road; there was little point in settling or even going much inland (though I know that there were settlements around large inland lakes). I better understood the richness of the land: water, meat, fish, wood in seemingly endless supply. It was all kind of perfect, except for those blasted winters. I learned that many tribes thought of northern Michigan as a place to go in the summers – like their later fudge-purchasing, Rayban-wearing counterparts. They would travel south for the harsher months.
I’ve never felt much connection to Native American cultures. I’ve never wanted to wear the jewelry, nor collect the blankets. A psychic once told me I had been a Native American midwife in a previous life and I almost busted out laughing – not because of the midwife part, that I could believe – but because of my lifelong lack of connection to anything remotely Native. I admired, respected and was moderately interested in Native culture, but didn’t feel it the way so many people do.
But my week by the lake, discovering, cleaning and holding items they held and wore and valued… now I feel it.
Still, the question loomed: what should I do with these items? Donate to a museum? Give to my friends whose ancestors lived near there centuries ago?
When I got home, I took a big chance and wrote to an archaeologist. Gulp. Here is our exchange:
Hello, Dr. XXX
“I found your email address online and hope it’s ok to ask you a quick question. I was recently metal detecting in the surf of Lake Michigan.” [I told her the name of the town.] I found an item in the water I’m very curious about and was wondering if you might be able to identify it. I’ve attached a photo. It’s about the size of a quarter. Any leads much appreciated.”
Here’s her response:
“That is certainly interesting – of course it is hard to ID things from just a photo, but it certainly looks like trade silver and perhaps a piece of some kind of Jesuit ring/pin/other personal ornamentation – trade silver was common in Jesuit relations with tribal communities in the Great Lakes – so I would say this is an item from the early historic period, French interaction with Michigan tribes, between ca. 1610 and 1740ish (French and Indian War.)”
“It’s a very nice item — I must add as an archaeologist that once an artifact is out of context, it loses a lot of its meaning. It is very important to us to find things in situ and for sites to remain as intact as possible. The items themselves are only one part of the story, the main part of the story is the association of items with each other, with buildings, with living surfaces, and so on. I would also add that tribal communities are still very present and active in Northern Michigan today and they are working hard to protect their cultural heritage – you might consider giving this item to them or to a local museum.”
I wrote back immediately:
“I’m excited to hear your take on the item. I immediately thought about donating it, but wanted to check with you — or someone — to be sure it wasn’t a steering wheel off an old toy car, or some 1970s hippie jewelry. …
I do understand about the “in situ” issue — and the differing views of archaeologists and metal detectorists. This item was found IN the water (right where the waves were lapping up) so I would imagine the in situ issue is moot, right? It must have been moved around quite a bit over the centuries. The part that confuses me is the ethics of metal detecting in an area where clearly no archaeologist is ever going to go. In addition to the item I found in the surf, I did find a few clearly historical items in the woods right next to the cabin we were renting (with permission of homeowner).
Isn’t it better to at least know that an area might be worth looking at closer? Isn’t it better to find some items and donate them rather than just have them be lost forever, or be bulldozed during a home building?
Is an ethical metal detectorist who locates a potential site and perhaps contacts an archaeologist better than leaving a site undiscovered?
Sorry… lots of questions! I’m genuinely trying to understand the issue better and do appreciate your wisdom. Thank you!”
She never wrote back. I probably over-gushed. Maybe she thought my questions were challenging in some way.
When I got back to Tennessee, I began learning more about “trade silver” – the items brought over from Europe specifically for trade with indigenous folks. And what I’ve learned has made me look closer at some of the items I found and initially disregarded. For example, I figured that this was part of a modern hair barrette.
I also disregarded the piece on the left until I got home and found two tiny letters (I can’t read them) on the cut end…
But online I found photos of nearly identical pieces in a website on Native American trade silver. So I guess that’s what they are.
Which brings me back to my original question: what do I do with this stuff? I certainly didn’t rob a grave. These were items that were dropped or discarded by both Native people and Europeans who were in the midst of living their lives. It’s not like this is ancient history and we have no idea what happened here. We know. This collision of cultures has been studied and written about by all kinds of scholars. In every way, it is a terrible story of hubris and violence and subjugation. But it is not a mystery.
Is it inherently disrespectful of me to remove these items from the ground? Could it be that they want to be found?
What about the tin cans, bottle caps and the pulltabs? Should I remove those? After all, they are the artifacts of the future.
Everything in the ground tells a story. Everything. I’m just listening.
For an expanded version of this story, and many more articles about Whit Hill’s metal detecting adventures, go to
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