Colonial Quarry Treasures
By: Bill Ladd
Traces of stone walls led the way as we backpacked up the hillside through thick brush and darkened overgrowth. Grey facades of native New England granite outcroppings appeared upon higher ground, and soon an amazing sight emerged. Looking as if a giant had left behind the toy blocks he was playing with, a jumble of long-cut granite was in fact the remains of a once-busy Colonial stone quarry. Each rectangular stone slab of several tons had been split by hand using the "pin & feathering" method, as evidenced by the 3-4" scars that lined almost every piece we examined. My partner, Rob Fahey, and I had stumbled upon many a quarry site over the years, but they'd never yielded much in the way of finds. Yet, this one would forever change our minds about the importance of the stone quarries of New England.
Climbing amid the enormous collection of stones, it seemed somewhat eerie that all these usable blocks were just abandoned. What happened to the people who endured the hardship of making these enormous slabs? Blocks like this were fashioned to support house foundations, make gate and hitching posts, wells, etc. But, strangely, this impressive collection never reached their destinations.
We had searched several cellar holes nearby with great success and surmised this had to be the area where the foundation stones came from. A faint path in front of the quarry turned out to be an original wagon road that must have connected to the Colonial hamlet below. Directly across this road I spied a square depression that looked like another cellar hole. However, none of the foundation stones remained, and we'd never discovered a cellar so close to a working quarry. A quick test with my detector indicated lots of iron around the depression, indicating that it was a foundation that had been stripped of its stones and reused on another home. This happened quite often, it seems, when places became abandoned.
A quick scan with our detectors convinced us that this site held great promise. My first signal along the cellar turned up a 1700s large coat button in the same hole with a Chinese cash coin dating c. 1736-1795. Interestingly, the fancy button had no shank but a hole drilled in it like the coin. I imagined them on a string around the neck of a quarry worker and lost, thus ending up together. Was this foundation the home of the quarry workers?
I arrived home with a newfound fascination of how granite slabs this large were formed with nothing more than a hand hammer and some small iron wedges. Nowadays you'd use a crane.
To learn more before serious detecting began, I borrowed the book Sermons in Stone by Susan Allport. Several pages mentioned "pin and feathering," a technique that came into favor for splitting stone in the latter 1700s. "It represented a substantial improvement over existing rock-splitting techniques of ice, fire, or gunpowder," according to Allport. Amazingly, it took only a square mason's hammer, a long piece of iron to drill a pilot hole, and an iron wedge called a "feather" inserted between two pins to produce the great slabs. "The feathers were struck one after the other, in rotation, producing split stone with a remarkably even face."
Armed with more information, Rob and I were excited to re-explore the quarry with our Fisher detectors. Working the wagon road along the front of the foundation turned up a few one-piece buttons, the nicest being a shiny 1700s tombac button. Rob worked the side of the foundation, also turning up a couple of flat buttons. I ventured farther up the road and soon locked onto a deep British copper of King George II.
We'd invited a newbie detectorist to join us, and he worked the area around the stone slabs where much of the tireless work had surely taken place. Unfamiliar with discrimination, he dug everything. Ending up with a pouch full of iron that he thought was all junk compared to our buttons and coins, he was upset until I explained that he had found a drill and some of the iron "feathers"- great relics with direct ties to the workings of the Colonial quarry itself.
A few years, and a few detectors later, I again had the quarry on my list of places to revisit. I've often said that a new unit or a new coil can conjure up new finds that were missed in the past. We can never get it all, and having a better appreciation of iron, I now hoped to add some of the iron pins or "feathers" to my collection. Another hunting buddy, Damon, had been hunting nearby, and I invited him and another detectorist to join me and my other partner, Howard, one recent Sunday.
I was armed not only with a T2 detector, but also a video camera in hopes of bringing a 1700s quarry site to life. After checking in with the landowner, we started early in the morning near the cellar hole and planned on hunting around the quarry later. Conditions were perfect, as it was early spring with no ferns or other growth impeding our swings.
Everyone fanned out, excited to be searching a Colonial site of this magnitude, a rare opportunity nowadays. Sunlight peeked through the umbrella of trees with only a quiet rustle of leaves and calls of an occasional bird breaking the silence. Soon, sounds of excitement were followed by the cries of, "Button!" Flat, one-piece buttons, mainly 1700s tombacs, were beginning to emerge once again- proof that plenty more were waiting to be unearthed. I was running a very "hot," or high sensitivity, 0-disc setting on my T2 that results in constant chatter but also extra depth. It led to several small cuff buttons that everyone else, including myself, had missed.
Damon, working around some boulders in the distance, began yelling, "Get the camera!" This generally means someone has found something significant, so get the camera I did as all of us jogged to a smiling Damon. He mentioned a very strong signal as we arrived to see him gently brushing off an 1801 Draped Bust large cent in nice condition. This was the first coin of the day, and hopes were high the rest of us might follow suit.
After pocketing another 1700s tombac button with some silver gilt and a dots pattern, I would be the one to answer Damon's copper on a faint cart path in front of the foundation. Howard grabbed the video camera as I knelt over a large plug with perhaps an even larger grin. A big copper disc falling out the bottom of an 8" plug will do it every time. I drew a crowd and I'd yet to touch the coin so that the camera could get a close-up in situ. Was it another large cent? Chatter from the sensitive detector continued to spill out of my headphones as I finally picked up and gently dusted off a George III copper with a clear date of 1772.
After a well deserved water break, Damon dug the next target about 8' from my "coin hole." It was another Colonial button, this time a large, delicate pewter variety. Just then Howard jumped over a stone wall and also yelled, "Button!" Everyone was getting into the act now, but a sudden thunderstorm was about to send us scrambling for bags to put over our detectors. The storm didn't last, however; and though wet, nobody even thought about leaving.
After lunch, we collectively decided it was "quarry time." Damon disappeared up the wagon road, and it didn't take long for a "Get the camera!" to send Howard and me running for a first glimpse. As we approached Damon and saw another coin lying beside the hole, I said, "Oh, man!" With a friendly rivalry going, Howard and I both knew Damon now held the lead for coins... and this one appeared to be silver! Cautioning him not to try to rub it for the camera, I could see that it was a nicely detailed 1872 Seated Liberty dime. This was the "newest" coin ever dug here (I'd dug a 1690 coin previously), proving two things: we are spoiled in this part of the U.S., and we now had a clear timeline of the beginning and end of this site.
Taking a page from Damon, Howard and I worked a fork in the same wagon road, and soon I had a high tone and confidence that it indicated a coin. I even told Howard it was another Georgian copper. Pinpointing it, I broke open a small clump to reveal what looked like a modern fired bullet or piece of aluminum. I threw down the clump in disgust, but thankfully took another look as it began to look more like silver and the flattened shank of a button. Sure enough, it read silver on all our detectors, and I now felt it was a handmade coin-silver button. In Colonial days, the edges of Spanish silver coins were routinely shaved off or "clipped" so that colonists could make things out of silver once they had gathered enough. This button definitely looked crude enough to fall into this category.
My next signal 8" deep would further expand the mystery as consecutive coin tones turned up a melted glob of metal that looked like a hunk of lead from a fire. I even told the camera, "Got fooled there." But wait... lead does not read 81 on my T2. Silver does! I called everyone over, and the consensus was that I had found a lump of silver that had been in a fire. Was a quarry worker or villager also a silversmith? Was this lump from the making of those buttons, or perhaps from some "shaved" coins? We can only dream, and that's one of the fun aspects of the hobby.
Chatting with Damon in front of the foundation as the sun set, I could see Howard still plugging on in front of the quarry pit. Many would have hung their head or packed it in early, but he was determined. After a while we saw him jump up and yell, so I got the camera and we all walked over to admire a nice set of brass chapes from a Colonial shoe buckle. He was happy but not done yet, as maybe 3' away he called out, "I'm on the board!" It was now 6:30 p.m., 12 hours after we'd started. Everyone had pocketed a coin, and now it was Howard excitedly collecting high-fives after some long and determined treasure hunting. He never gave up, and his reward was a rare 1794 Liberty Cap large cent!
Later we learned that the other detectorist we'd invited as a guest had returned to detect without us. Unfortunately, this happens often, especially with newbies who've yet to grasp detecting's unwritten ethics rules. At any rate, I'm sure he's figured out why he hasn't been included in any of our recent adventures.
Damon and I returned one more time as I was interested in digging out an iron-loaded area in hopes of landing a pin or "feather" wedge. I was able to find a couple to preserve with electrolysis, and as I did Damon unearthed another large cent far out behind the property lines. Surely there are more surprises awaiting us at the great quarry. The iron's masking plenty, and somewhere there's a trash pit loaded with bottles. Hopefully, that's another story waiting to be told.