You Can Be In Best Finds, Too!
By: Bill Dancy
Each year in April, Western & Eastern Treasures (W&ET) selects and showcases the “Best Finds” submitted by readers that were made during the prior year, and many of these can be seen in the current issue. These include recoveries not only from seasoned relic hunters, but those made by weekend hobbyists as well. These amazing finds give inspiration to all detectorists that one day they just might be fortunate enough to swing their coil over an extremely valuable or historical find. This article is designed to help maximize the chances for success in your quest to uncover such a treasure, and be recognized in this publication for your incredible “Best Find.”
Personally, I’ve been a serious Colonial relic hunter over the last 15 years or so, but my detecting career started out like those of many others. My early interests were primarily focused on searching old parks, school grounds, and yards surrounding turn-of-the-century homes. That was certainly a fun pastime, but once I made an unexpected recovery of a Colonial coin, I realized I had just opened the door to a whole new world of detecting for me. Since I’m from southeast Virginia and interested in local history, it suddenly hit me that the opportunities awaiting me here in one of the oldest areas of the country were endless. That led to an interest in research, and over the following years I enjoyed an increasing amount of success as I expanded my personal arsenal of research tools.
And yes, there’s always the remote possibility of making that killer find in almost any random location, but your chances for success ramp up dramatically if you can put yourself on a spot that saw activity related to the treasure you’re seeking. Obviously, if you’re hunting for Civil War relics, you need to steer yourself toward mid-19 century camps and house sites. Likewise, if it’s jewelry you’re after, hitting crowded beaches and swimming areas makes good sense. Whatever treasures you’re after, strive to seek out those sites that have the highest probability for producing the targets you desire.
Well, all that sounds easy, but the truth of the matter is that you need to make sure you do your homework before heading out to search for that find of a lifetime. It’s been my experience that if you want to be successful in this hobby, you need to spend at least three hours performing research for every hour of swinging the detector. I can’t overemphasize the importance of not only utilizing the usual sources such as the library and the internet, but unlocking secrets through more innovative or “outside the box” methods can lead you to discover clues others might not be aware of. Taking the “road less traveled” can give you a distinct advantage and put you on sites that have never seen a detector. In this article, I'll share a few of the unique research techniques that have proven successful, putting me on the right spots, and can work for you too.
One of my most valuable and productive assets over the years has been the Library of Virginia website. No matter where you might be located, your state library is just a click away. Most have a number of databases that contain information on old homes, historic sites, or other locations that might not be available elsewhere. The Library of Congress is also a treasure trove of resources, especially for old maps. Between these two sources I’ve been led to countless early sites that have given up many great finds.
One report I discovered in the state library’s Virginia Historical Inventory (VHI) database provided clues that eventually led me to an otherwise undocumented early 17th century house site. Here I recovered two scattered caches of British hammered silver coins dating between 1560 and 1640. I was also able to locate and excavate an early trash pit at this site which contained many early-to-mid 1600s artifacts, including a nearly complete Dutch delftware plate that I was able to almost totally reconstruct. This was the most productive colonial site I’ve ever had the privilege to hunt, and I owe it all to a little basic research.
Also available on the Library of Virginia website in digitized form are chancery court records for most counties in the state. These records, which date back to the mid-1700s, include documents covering land disputes, contesting of wills, and other legal proceedings. And they sometimes include detailed, hand-drawn plat maps which show precise locations of old homes. In the October 2014 issue of W&ET, my article entitled “Harvesting the Colonial Bounty” discussed how I used chancery court records to find an unknown site just ten minutes from my house. This site produced an incredible quantity of colonial relics including silver and copper coins, early buckles, buttons and a wide variety of other interesting artifacts. There’s a good chance your local county or state has similar records that you can put to good use as well.
A new tool I’ve used over the last year or so is researching Colonial land patents. These were land grants given to induce early settlers to make the long voyage across the Atlantic and come live in the New World. One of the stipulations for receiving a patent was that the owner was required to build a house and start planting crops within three years, or the land reverted back to the Crown. Based on this, just about every one of the hundreds of early land patents in my area was inhabited by the settler, his family, and probably a number of indentured servants. This opens up a tremendous opportunity to locate these early sites that contain artifacts lost or discarded by our country’s earliest inhabitants. There are a number of resources both in local libraries and online that can help you find these types of sites, particularly if you live along the East Coast. Or you can check out my article “Innovative Research Reveals New Relic Sites” (W&ET May 2014) for all the details about how I use this valuable reference source.
So far this article has focused primarily on methods to find the Colonial sites that are abundant in my home state of Virginia. However, if you’re not fortunate enough to live in an area steeped in such early history, do not despair. There are many ways to give yourself an advantage in your search for that special find in your part of the world.
I’ve already mentioned how the use of maps can help locate old sites, and these come in many forms. In addition to historical maps which can identify house sites and military camps back to the Civil War or earlier, 20th century topographic maps and aerial photos can also be an invaluable resource. My favorite website for this data is www.historicaerials.com which provides a series of early-to-mid 1900s topographic maps, as well as historical aerial photos going back to mid-century for many locations. Once you select your area of interest, you can zoom in and view a wide variety of maps and photos that can help to reveal long-lost sites that are waiting to be rediscovered. These include old houses, parks, schools, swimming holes, and other previously occupied areas that may no longer be in existence.
Another clue that I’m always on the lookout for is very large trees that may be left in the middle of a field, or that stand out in the woods. These are usually a great indicator that the site was once occupied. But instead of relying solely on observation, I began using the Virginia Big Tree Database which I discovered on the internet. This website allows you to search for huge trees by county, leading to a long list of existing or fallen “champions." The documentation provided for each tree includes pictures, maps, and even the property owner’s name and address. This information can be cross-referenced with your map research to potentially put you on early and undocumented homesites. Other states are likely to have similar databases that you can tap into for identifying the whereabouts of these huge trees.
A more obvious indicator that an old home site was nearby is the existence of a cemetery. However, since many of these are public knowledge and numerous records are available online, it’s likely many of these areas have been hunted by others. But taking this a step further, you can utilize current Google Earth aerials to scan rural areas and try to pick out small clumps of trees or vegetation that may stand out in the middle or edge of a field which, in many cases, may turn out to be an early cemetery. This technique has led me to a number of untouched sites, including one that yielded over 200 buttons and 15 pieces of Spanish silver. I never would have considered hunting there if I hadn’t seen that out-of-place vegetation in the middle of a remote and well-hidden field on an aerial photo. Now, an important word of caution: Please make sure that you honor the metal detecting code of ethics by never hunting in the actual cemetery grounds.
Do not underestimate the power of utilizing visual clues to help interpret the landscape. While on occasional scouting trips I love to study the “lay of the land”, and nice looking knolls, ridges, or high plateaus always catch my attention. South facing slopes are also of interest as they could be an indicator of an early military camp, especially when a source of fresh water is nearby. I can’t put enough emphasis on using this technique, as it’s led me to numerous early homesites and camps in my local area. Almost all of these are undocumented, and are ones that I might not have come across using any of my other research tools.
About three years ago I asked permission from a property owner to search a field with a nice looking elevated plateau that had a south facing slope. It also had a spring stream in a ravine behind the plateau, so this was a textbook example. Although the owner quickly told me, “You won’t find a thing in that field,” I replied that I’d like to give it a try anyway and, not too surprisingly, I quickly located a late Colonial house site and military camp there. Between me and my hunting buddies, we recovered well over 300 buttons, not to mention an early coin spill that I came across in an adjacent area. I’ve had similar success at other sites, too, and it wouldn’t have been possible without taking the time to study the terrain and knowing what to look for.
While talking about visual clues, I can tell you from experience that it almost always pays to keep your eyes peeled to the ground while detecting. I’m referring not only to looking straight ahead in your direction of motion, but frequently scanning side-to-side as you swing. This is important in plowed fields, on the beach, at construction sites, etc., as it makes it easy to pick up clues that your detector cannot. For instance, in the cultivated fields I love to hunt, I’m always on the lookout for even the smallest piece of brick, pottery or glass that could indicate previous activity. Likewise, at a beach when you start seeing concentrations of bottle caps, foil, wrappers, or cigarette butts, you know that’s an area where coins and jewelry might be found. Once you observe these telltale signs, it’s time to slow down and listen carefully. I’ve found numerous gold rings in the dry sand by paying close attention to my surroundings as I hunt the beach.
Speaking of gold, for most hunters the tendency is to cherry-pick the high tones, mostly due to impatience. However, in actuality, some of the best finds are low conductivity targets that in many cases are ignored. Detecting in low or no discrimination can be a very smart move, as items such as small buttons, larger tombacs, buckle pieces, and even gold coins and rings can turn up when you hunt using this technique.
Even though you may favor a particular style of detecting, don’t limit yourself to one specific type of site. Maybe you consider yourself strictly a beach hunter, or only like to search yards, but expanding your horizons beyond your comfort zone can be both fun and rewarding. For instance, if you like hunting in the dry sand you may want to consider venturing out into the water where your chances for finding valuable jewelry will increase. Other areas where I’ve found success include freshwater lakes, saltwater creeks, woods, pastures, cultivated fields, timbered land, and construction sites, among others. All of these locations can be rewarding and sometimes yield major finds.
Another solid research technique is to use old, out-of-print books to gather clues for the sites you’re seeking. You can find many of these in your local library, but some are available for free viewing and download on Google Books, archive.org, and other websites. I have quite a few of these in both my personal and electronic libraries that see frequent use, and sometimes they provide that last missing piece of the puzzle.
Don’t forget that some of the best information can be found through chatting with the locals in your area, particularly the old-timers. They can pass on knowledge that will never be found in any book, and that will soon be gone forever. I always like to bring up my hobby when talking with other family members, friends, and new acquaintances, and sometimes this can really pay off. Remember the folks at your local historical society, too, as they may have some unique documentation that could help lead you in the right direction.
I could mention many other research tips and tricks, but let’s move on now and talk a little about how to gain access to sites that you’ve researched. It doesn’t matter how incredible a site you’ve been able to identify; if you can’t get permission from the owner to search it, then it’s all for naught.
I’ve never been comfortable with just knocking on a door and immediately asking if I can use a metal detector on someone’s property. I prefer to start with a friendly conversation that includes introducing myself, followed with some background on the history of their land which almost always gets their attention. At that point, I present the owners with copies of my research materials, and they always seem to be very appreciative of that. Then I start asking specific questions such as, “Have you ever noticed any old brick in the field?” Eventually I tell them I’ve been trying to locate early home sites in the county and determine their age, and would like permission to search the fields with a metal detector. I also promise to show &/or share my finds with them if they’re interested. Using this technique I’ve had a success rate of well over 80%, and it can work for you, too, regardless of the type of site you wish to hunt. And once a successful relationship has been established, word-of-mouth can land you on even more sites.
Once you have the owner’s permission, you need to have a strategy as to how to hunt the site. This, of course, is dependent on the type of site you’ll be searching, although some general methods can be applied to all. Initially, I like to make a few random passes through the area and see what kind of targets show up, how deep they are, and how much iron or trash is present. Based on those results, I then usually like to hunker down in the area with the highest density of keeper finds and run a slow and methodical grid pattern. Make sure you slightly overlap the coverage with your coil, both in the forward direction as well as on the edges of your swing as you make the next pass. Sweeping from different angles also helps to pick up targets that are masked by iron or trash. A number of additional techniques I employ when hunting Colonial fields were presented in detail in the article “How to Get the Most Out of Colonial Sites” (W&ET November 2014).
Equipment is another consideration, but it’s always been my belief that detecting success is 60% research, 30% user experience, and 10% technology. In other words, you can be using a top-of-the-line detector, but if you haven’t put yourself onto a good site as a result of thorough research, it doesn’t matter how good you or your machine may be. Nevertheless, there are a few things you can do using your current detector to increase your chances for success.
One of those is to select the right coil for the application. If you’re hunting clean ground, looking for that deep target others may have missed, you should stick to the stock coil or even a larger after-market one. Then again, if you’re trying to pick out that little button, coin, or piece of jewelry mixed in with heavy iron or trash, by all means drop down to a small “shooter” style coil. It’s amazing what additional targets these small coils can identify hidden in the trash, especially if you slow your swing speed and turn the detector sensitivity down. And, as always, patience is the key.
Once you’ve done your research, secured permission, and thoroughly hunted your special site, all you can hope for is to be fortunate enough to pass your detector’s coil over that valuable relic, coin, or piece of jewelry that you’ve been striving to uncover. You may have a specific target in mind, but don’t forget that in almost all cases the best find usually comes when you least expect it. That has certainly been my experience over the years, and was especially true just recently when a signal that sounded like another lead musketball turned out to be the find of a lifetime for me— an ultra-rare 1659 Lord Baltimore silver sixpence! You can read about that find in this month’s issue.
As soon as you make that special find, you should immediately begin preparations for making your submission to W&ET for their Best Finds issue. The critical first step is to get a letter or certificate of professional authentication and appraisal to validate your find. This is an absolute must, and your submission cannot be accepted without this documentation. You should also begin work on a narrative that tells the story of your find. This can come in the form of a 200-400 word description, or an optional full-length article (1,500+ words). Your entry must also include sharp, close-up color photos of the item (both front and back), with digital images being the highest resolution available, but a minimum of 300 dpi. All photos submitted should be accompanied by captions with a short, concise description of what’s being shown in each image. A complete set of submission rules, along with the official Best Finds entry form, can be found on the W&ET website at wetreasures.com And please be sure to have your entry submitted no later than December 15, 2015 for consideration in the April 2016 Best Finds issue.
I hope that this article has helped to steer you in the right direction, alert you to more opportunities, and motivate you in your quest to one day make that find of a lifetime that we know is lurking somewhere under the ground, in the water, or buried in the sand. Good luck and happy hunting!