Destroying American History: A Reflection on Relic Hunting

ECW welcomes guest editor Evan A. Kutzler and his response to David Dixon’s recent post on relic hunting

About 20 years ago, as a high school student in a summer college program, I took an Introduction to Archaeology course. The textbook suggested linking scholarly sources with local knowledge to find archaeological sites. This was familiar. As a teenager with a metal detector and a Tennessee State Library and Archives card, I had combined primary and secondary sources with local knowledge for a couple of years. This rosy parallel between my hobby and the class ended at the section on metal detecting. If memory serves, the textbook used relic hunter, looter, and grave robber interchangeably. I objected in class to what I thought amounted to slander. Words flew in both directions. I left the classroom expecting to be expelled from the program.

The lesson took—sort of. Even as I moved toward the humanities, I came to value how archaeologists discuss provenance and came to regret many of the practices I picked up from my community of relic hunters. This appreciation came with a pesky caveat that still shapes my view of public history. The study of the past is bigger than people with graduate degrees in the humanities and the social sciences. Efforts to enclose the study of the past—or impose a set of professional ethics on a rival community—make me uneasy.

An Enfield bayonet and ramrod, rifle barrel rings, cartridge box finial, hatchet and some of the bullets recovered together in August 1999 in Franklin, Tennessee, during the construction of a drainage system for the Franklin Boys and Girls Club on W. Fowlkes Street. Photo by author.

Given the popularity of metal detecting and Civil War memory, it has always surprised me how little sustained work exists on relic hunting. Is a social or cultural history of “relics,” a curious word with religious undertones, possible? How has relic hunting evolved alongside professional archaeology? What partnership models exist for archaeologists and relic hunters? Perhaps public historians might find themselves positioned in the overlap of these spheres in productive ways. Before moving in a different direction, I even thought this topic might make for a good master’s thesis.[1]

In recent years, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn algorithms have offered up a steady stream of posts and videos about relic hunting. This included David T. Dixon’s insightful post, “Civil War Relic Hunting: Destroying American History,” but it also includes myriad examples that make his call all the more urgent. From the TV shows to social media posts and reels, as Dixon notes, relic hunting is more visible now than ever. Magnet fishing for cannonballs, anyone? These trends, combined with recent trends in higher education, worry me about the future in which there exists plenty of advertisement-funded content creators, but fewer trained professionals.[2]

Articles about relic hunters destroying American history, in my view, rarely move beyond a set of familiar talking points and stereotypes, showing archaeology as the ethical and professional norm and relic hunting as an aberration on a slide scale from a nuisance to a crime against humanity. “Hand in hand with the bulldozer and the tracked excavator that destroys archaeological sites are the perpetrators of ‘time crime,’” John Sprinkle Jr. writes for a textbook on preservation. “These are the looters who destroy archaeological sites for fun and for profit.”[3] Is there any wonder relic hunters are secretive or shy?

U.S. soldiers guarding the Nashville and Decatur Railroad dropped–or threw–this .58 caliber minié ball into a creek in Middle Tennessee. It came out compact in gravel and, perhaps, tar, in June 2002. Photo by author.

Dixon offers a more positive variation on the genre, especially his calls for collaboration. This, too, has a long history for the study of the Civil War era and beyond. Some professionals blend the dichotomy of the local expert and the relic hunter from Archaeology 101. “In an atmosphere in which many developers and politicians will not voluntarily allocate funds to protect or investigate historic properties,” Bryan Corle and Joseph Balicki write, “relic hunter collections and their site-specific knowledge may be the only remaining evidence for destroyed sites.”[4] One day “we” might discover that the archaeologists and historians needed relic hunters more than “they” needed “us.”

The following recommendations are personal opinions. They may help work toward understanding the range of people described as relic hunters. All five can be summarized as a call for empathy and respectful dialogue. And while a few items respond obliquely to Dixon, these are things I would have recommended before reading his article.

  1. Acknowledge that economic entanglements—including cultural resource management regulations and practices—are tricky and not easily separated into commercial vs. non-commercial or private vs. public activities.

  2. Avoid insinuations of illegality—terms like looter and grave robber—unless used to describe specific illegal or reprehensible actions. The Civil War took place over a lot of space, and little of that space is protected at the local, state, or federal level. Fidelity to the law and broad ethical statements varies in relic-hunting circles as it does with any other recreational or professional activity.

  3. Encourage introspection by letting relic hunters speak. Study how their hobbies give meaning to their lives and their imagined connections to the past. There may be more common ground than we think. Is a “period rush” of living historians so different from the experience of a historian in the archives? Or a relic hunter in a river? Many archaeologists might, had their lives had taken a different turn, be relic hunters—and vice versa. Can shared interest become the foundation for productive dialogue and collaboration?

  4. Consider variations in the meaning of the word “preservation.” What does it mean to “destroy” or “preserve” history? And to whom? Where do relic hunters draw ethical lines? Where do they agree and disagree with one another? In landscape preservation as in the monument question, phrases like “preserving history” and “destroying history” may mean very different things to different people. Avoid assuming that the difference is simply ignorance.

  5. Tell more history through hands-on objects in classrooms, historic sites, and museums. There is little danger in holding or damaging an artifact that has little potential to shed light on the positivist study of the past. Opportunities may still abound for creative humanistic or artistic storytelling. Some artifacts belong in museums. Some artifacts belong in hands. These objects might also help explain why so many professionals believe artifacts belong in the ground.

It is hard to predict where relic hunting, public history, and historical archaeology will go in the future. Neither collaboration nor the clash of values is new. Is relic hunting a bigger problem now than twenty years ago? Or is it just more visible? Collectors should reflect on and explain their practices and ethics and the variations between ideals and practice. Archaeologists, historians, and other professionals are well within their professional right to criticize the practice.

The same professionals should also commit to less stereotypical representations of relic hunters, their actions, and their beliefs if there is any hope of successful inroads. My experience at East Tennessee State University in 2005 was insightful, somewhat painful, and it left me tiptoeing around archaeologists for many years. While it did not dampen my interest in studying the past, the outcome might have been worse for a more vulnerable student. The experience may have influenced a decision between a technical degree and a liberal arts education or between college and no college.

The preservation of material culture is too urgent to rest solely on the shoulders of one discipline or on one set of values. Television shows and reels on social media threaten to undo the progress made by archaeologists and other professionals toward a preservation ethos. Public historians—especially those working at local museums and historic sites—may be positioned to manage conversations in mutually respectful ways. This would be better late than never, and it might prevent us professionals from becoming the relic in the public imagination.

Evan Kutzler is an associate professor of U.S. and Public History at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He is the author or editor of several books, including Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019) and From Biscuits to Lane Cake: Emma Rylander Lane’s “Some Good Things to Eat” (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2023).


[1] It can be difficult to disentangle the different types of artifact collection and their unique  destructive potentials. Civil War “relic hunting,” and metal detecting in general, changes the landscape in different ways than privy or trash pit digging at civilian sites. The surface collection of artifacts in rivers and plowed fields (which is common for Native American artifacts but almost impossible for Civil War relics) further muddies broad generalities about site destruction. On collecting, see Marjorie Akin, “Passionate Possession,” in W. David Kingery, ed., Learning from Things: Method and Theory in Material Culture Studies (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996), 105; Thomas King, “Lovers or Looters” (unpublished report, 1991).

[2] See, for example, Michael Bennet, “Nuggetnoggin,” (accessed March 29, 2024),, Beau Ouimette, “Aquachigger,” (accessed March 29, 2024), Zach Byrd, “Zach Byrd Adventure Hour,” (accessed March 29, 2024),

[3] John H. Sprinkle, “Uncertain Destiny: The Changing Role of Archaeology in Historic Preservation,” in Robert E. Stipe, ed., A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003): 276. See also Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole, and Peter Watson, “Stealing History,” CRM 25, no. 2 (2002): 8; Robert J. Mallouf, “An Unraveling Rope: The Looting of America’s Past,” American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 20 (Spring 1996): 199; Colin Renfrew, “Collectors are the Real Looters,” Archaeology 46, no. 3 (fall 1993): 16-17.

[4] Bryan L. Corle and Joseph F. Balicki, “Finding Civil War Sites: What Relic Hunters Know, What Archaeologists Should and Need to Know,” in Huts and History: The Historical Archaeology of Military Encampments during the American Civil War, eds. Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr, and Matthew B. Reeves (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2006): 59. See also Jerome A. Greene and Douglas D. Scott, Finding Sand Creek: History, Archaeology, and the 1864 Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 68-71.

3 Responses to Destroying American History: A Reflection on Relic Hunting

  1. I think this raises some really important questions about the future of our field! Awesome piece!

  2. First time I’ve really thought about this and I missed Mr. Dixon’s article. That being said, I have bought some inexpensive relics on Ebay and from people that were perhaps relic hunters. They were affordable and that is the point I’d like to make in defense of relic hunters. (Not grave hunters: that’s grotesque.) Relic hunting can be a fun, inexpensive hobby for history buffs. At the next level, I was happy to support their hobby by spending a couple of bucks on their finds.

  3. thanks to you and Dr. Dixon for these essays … it seems there’s an opporunity for cooperation between the relic hunting and archeology communities … I don’t know much about archeology, but the relic hunters i know are historical detectives extraordinaire and careful curators of what they find and where they find it.

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