Tuesday, April 23, 2013

503rd PIR in Australia, Yesterday and Today

This post is actually about bringing the hobby of metal detecting and the enjoyment of history closer together. But in honor of Anzac Day occurring this week (and the fact that I'm working on book about the 503rd), I found an illustrative example that includes the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment and their time "down under" training in Australia during WWII.

First, take a moment to think about the relationship between metal detector enthusiasts and archaeologists/historians. My history friends that I've conversed with about relic hunters (two National Park Rangers and an Archaeologist), to put it plainly, did not have a high opinion of "relic hunters." The punishments for getting caught metal detecting on National Park property usually worked its way into the conversation. How is the view from the other direction? I have to assume that most metal detecting enthusiasts do not really understand why so few sites have been examined and what all the fuss is.

This dialogue in my mind came up when I ran across a post on the Society for Historical Archaeology blog about archaeologists and metal "detectorists" coming together in Montpelier. Here's the gist, borrowed from the SHA blog:

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.
As you will find out in the article, both sides learned lessons from each other. The dectorists began to feel appreciated in having a valuable skill set gathered over years of pursuing their hobby. Apparently the interaction also went a long way toward convincing the archaeologists the the hobbyists were not the "looters" they were stereotyped to be.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the 503rd Parachute Infantry during WWII? Well, in 1942 the 503rd spent about eight months in Gordonvale, Queensland, Australia. They were training there in preparation for their first combat jump, at Nazdab in New Guinea. While writing about this period, I found the most interesting video, posted on YouTube by a member of the NQ Explorers, a group that maintains a blog about their relic and coin hunting trips around Australia. The video is very well done, with newsreel clips about the 503rd as an opener, then a drive through the local area to the site that gives you an idea of what the terrain is like. Next you see the site of the parachute packing sheds is now a park and tennis club. But the  detectorist finds some coins, a shell casing, and a belt buckle in the lawn around the tennis courts.

I thought this hobbyist provided a great service by not only making others aware of the subject, but also letting me get a glimpse of a historic site that I was interested in. I have to criticize the detectorist's historical knowledge, however. I've embedded the video below so you can see for yourself. I had to wonder, would this hobbyist enjoyed his trip more if he had a deeper appreciation for his subject? I'm undoubtedly biased, but I think so. Regardless, good on ya, mate. I appreciate the visit.

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