Metal Detecting Code of Ethics


Metal detectorists have a responsibility to detect ethically and with a degree of etiquette that sustains our hobby. What we do is fun and possibly lucrative, but not always understood by people sharing the same space with us. How they perceive our actions can determine how much freedom we retain to pursue the hobby we love.

Metal detecting ethically and with etiquette is simple. It’s a “golden rule” type of thing that respects other people and casts a positive light on the hobby as something significantly more than people digging holes in the ground while leaving a mess behind. There is no mandated code of ethics, but there’s clearly a common theme that should guide our behavior:

  • Don’t be intrusive to other people
  • Leave your hunt location as you found it, or better
  • Pay attention to signage
  • Ask permission where needed
  • Help others to find lost items if requested
  • Share the hobby with people who ask about it
  • Truly archaeological finds of historic value should be turned over to proper researchers

Quick note: I’m not an attorney or any kind of legal expert. This article is written for informational and educational purposes only. It’s up to you to verify any current rules or laws in effect for the location you’re planning to metal detect on. Happy Searching!


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In researching this article, I found over 130 different ethics and etiquette items on the web. The interesting thing is they all agree on the same points. There are some region-specific differences such as European mention of country codes and other things not specific to the US, but they all center around the following points.

These are, in no particular order, the universal guidelines worth adopting as your metal detecting code of ethics:

Build Your Own Metal Detecting Code of Ethics

Avoid metal detecting at night, it may be illegal and, at a minimum, it looks suspicious
Dig in a manner that preserves the property you’re on, such as cutting a half-circle hinged plug
Don’t contaminate wells, creeks, or other water supplies
If you discover possibly live ammunition or lethal objects (bombs or mines), do not touch or disturb; call the police and notify the landowner
Never damage or remove any historically significant or archeological treasures or deserted ghost towns
Report any significant historical artifacts to local authorities and do not damage them if found
Respect private property and don’t treasure hunt without the owner’s permission
Respect sacred places and don’t metal detect in cemeteries or other religious areas
Let thoughtfulness and consideration guide your activities
Always leave gates as you found them
Consider contacting a local museum if you find something historical that would be appreciated by the community
Consider placing the dirt your dig on a cloth so it’s easier to replace
Do not dig on someone’s property when the ground is dry so you don’t kill the grass
If you are asked to leave the location you’re hunting in, don’t argue, ask politely for the reason and then it’s better to just leave with an apology
If you find something that’s identifiable, return it to the proper owner
People may ask questions when they see you out metal detecting; help them understand the hobby and the care we take
Protect natural resources and private property
Report individuals who retrieve items from protected areas such as Federal or State Parks
Take your trash with you and leave the area better than you found it
Use proper recovery methods, filling the holes you dig for esthetics and safety
Use the best tool for recovery, not overkill methods
KEY TENETS OF YOUR METAL DETECTING CODE OF ETHICS

Promoting Ethics by Clubs, Organizations, and Manufacturers

Ethical metal detecting behavior is a personal choice, but it’s also important that clubs, groups, associations, and other organizations promote it. For example, when searching for a metal detector club to join, see if their website contains a Code of Ethics.

There is one large organization that has adopted a very clear and concise “Treasure Hunter’s Code of Ethics.” They are the FMDAC (Federation of Metal Detector & Archeological Clubs, Inc.) whose goals is to “Educate and inform the public as to the merits of recreational metal detecting.”

Reading their Code of Ethics, I see a good example to follow for your own code or that of a club. It contains the main points of any similarly authored Code you can find online. That’s a good thing since it points to the universal belief in conducting this hobby the right way.

Manufacturers of metal detecting hobby equipment also touch on ethics and/or things you can do to keep the hobby alive. That’s good practice. In fact, underneath their ethics in metal detecting list, Fisher Research Labs goes to great lengths to explain the “Recommended Recovery Method” to ensure as little collateral damage is done when digging as possible.

metal detecting code of ethics

How to Research Metal Detecting Laws and Rules

There are many rules and laws out there, depending on the country, the state, and the locale. If you have a local dealer, that may be the best and easiest place to start in order to understand where and where not to detect.

Without that option, you can join a metal detecting club or association who has a stated code of ethics.

Here are some generalities to guide you in your research:

  • Private Property: Possibly the easiest and safest location for avoiding rule or law violations. Obtain permission to metal detect from the property owner. Along these lines, approaching the owner is an art in itself. These tips will improve your chances of succeeding:
    • Be neat in appearance
    • Have a copy of your code of ethics with you to show the owner
    • Come to an agreement (verbally or in writing) on what to do with any items found
    • Consider carrying a card with your contact information to present to them (this might come in handy if they later need someone to find lost items)
    • Explain what you’re looking for, why you chose their property, and how you find and retrieve items. Also touch on the good condition you will leave their property in.
  • Laws
    • Federal Level:
      • On June 8, 1906, the Antiquities Act allowed the President to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.” Today the Antiquities Act is still in effect.  (also see What Are Antiquities?)
      • There are restrictions in place to protect many Federal locations, such as the National Forest System.
      • If you’re considering metal detecting on Federal land, make sure you research first and gain permission if there’s a method to do that. For example, using a metal detector in areas subject to the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 requires a special use permit for scientific research only.
  • State Level:
    • Generally, all states allow for some form of metal detecting on their lands. Again, check first and gain permission as needed. If you have a specific area in mind, contact the appropriate office (such as a park office) about rules and permits.
    • Sometimes you have to dig before you can dig! For example, this document for the State of New Hampshire has some specific information but it’s buried in a multi-page document (see Res 7301.19 Metal Detectors)
    • You can also contact your State’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Here is the FMDAC list of State Park contacts.
    • Best Bet – search online for “metal detecting in [your state]”
  • City/Town Level:
    • This is another case where a local metal detector dealer, club, or organization can help you. In addition, the local Police Department or Historical Society may be able to guide you. Also, look for posted signs prohibiting metal detecting. That makes it easy to figure out!
  • Beaches:
    • Generally OK, however, there are rules for some beaches. For example, in Florida they have some very specific rules about beach metal detecting, stating “In general, stay out the water, whether it’s salt or freshwater. On the beach, all lands below the mean high-water line are state sovereignty submerged lands. That even means wet sands. Remember that objects more than 50 years old are state property and are illegal to retrieve by private operators. Forget the waters adjacent to national parks; they’re off-limits, period.”

Let’s Recap

Even though White’s Electronics is being acquired by Garrett Electronics, as long as this video remains, it’s a great recap of what makes having a metal detecting code of ethics such a good thing personally and for the hobby.

It’s Up to You Now

If you’ve been around the hobby for a long time, you’ve no doubt internalized a lot of this behavior. Thank you.

Help mentor the newcomers so that they adopt these same standards of friendly metal detecting and act as torchbearers for the future of our hobby.

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