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Treasure hunters can’t use metal detectors on JBSA or any federal property

By Arlan Kalina | 502nd Civil Engineer Squadron | March 20, 2017

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas --

Metal detecting has become a very popular hobby in recent years, especially with the advancement of more sensitive and powerful technology. Some of the new detectors can detect metal up to a foot underground.

It is an interesting family activity that can get the whole family outside enjoying nature. But despite its many good points, it is very important to realize that people cannot just go anywhere to practice their hobby.

People can metal detect on private property if, and only if, they have the land owner's permission. Metal detecting on federal lands is illegal and can’t be done without the proper permission. The archeological resources on federal land are protected by the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, or ARPA.

ARPA was passed to protect all archeological resources from theft, vandalism or damage by unauthorized researchers. These cultural resources belong to all citizens and not just to those that find or take them.

According to the Society of American Archeology website (http://www.saa.org), a metal detector user may be in violation of the law if artifacts are recovered during metal detecting, or if archaeological sites are disturbed during metal detecting activities. Artifacts and archaeological sites on federal, state, and local jurisdiction-controlled properties are protected by law. Archaeological resources on private property are also safeguarded by law (e.g., trespassing).

Violation of these laws carries serious consequences including the possibility of fines, jail time, and confiscation of the metal detector and other equipment used in the violation (such as vehicles). Other laws may apply including theft, destruction of private or government property, vandalism and driving in prohibited areas.

In archaeological research, the most important aspect is not the artifact, but its relation to the other artifacts and the site as a whole.

Many archaeological studies have been done at battlefields or historical sites using metal detectors in a systematic fashion and have discovered that the historical account of some of the battles differed greatly from the written record, and sometimes it confirms certain aspects of the battle.

Where a company or battalion moved or made their stand or charged the enemy can often be determined from the cartridges and artifacts that are dropped in the heat of an engagement.

For example, one of the most famous battles of the west, Gen. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, has been examined using metal detectors in a controlled and systematic manner. Archaeologists have been able to learn much that confirms their opinion and changes other beliefs about the massacre. (More information on Custer’s Last Stand and this archeological project can be found at the National Park Service website at https://www.nps.gov/history/mwac/libi/methods.html.)

Joint Base San Antonio, which also includes JBSA-Canyon Lake Recreation Area and Seguin Airfield, also monitors and requires someone digging holes even for a fence post to get a “dig permit.”

There are many places on JBSA where metal detecting could potentially locate unexploded ordnance. This is a particular possibility near creeks and other area that have not been checked.

Permits will not be given for metal detecting and violation of this law could result in the confiscation of the metal detector, your vehicle, civil and criminal penalties and even prosecution for theft of government property under other statues.

There are many sources to get involved in discovering the past that are even more fun and educational – and legal.

The Texas Archeological Society has been promoting amateur involvement in archeological field schools for decades. It is not very expensive and usually takes about a week during the summer. Visit https://txarch.org/ and explore the possibilities to learn about a Spanish Colonial Mission in Uvalde being excavated in June.

Amateur archeologists can also visit Texas Historic Commission website at http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/index.html for an interactive web map of archeology in the state.

502nd Civil Engineer Squadron Archaeological Resource Protection Act Metal detecting