It almost seems like second nature these days- relic hunting, that is. All of those leads and how we found them... the paths we roamed along in our thoughts which guided us to a successful hunt... the feeble origins of a hunch that gained greater strength with each recovered relic... the "reading" of the land's topography... the sifting and analyzing of small hints and clues that guided us to a hotspot in the vast acres of fields... yes, at times, it is second nature... NOW.
That very idea was driven home to me a few weeks ago when corresponding with a reader who was very new to the hobby. The main thought in his note was basically that it was very nice to see pictures of relics that had been recovered, but he wanted to know how they had been found... what had brought me to the site of recovery. I guess if I were to distill all of his writing down to one simple question it would have to be, "How do I start relic hunting?"
It was not an easy or simple question to answer, causing me a number of hours of reflection. I recalled that first, sadly battered musketball I held in my hand all those many years ago... the thrill and awesome wonder of being able to hold a piece of American history in my hands. I well remember that scene... the October breeze meandering its way through the oaks... the sound of the falling leaves... sitting on a large, lichen-covered rock and staring at the contents in the palm of my hand. I little realized, at the time, that I had opened a door, and beyond that threshold was a wondrous world of history and relic hunting.
I guess that young and inexperienced reader was just looking for a key so he could open his own door to the past.
No, I am not the "keeper of the keys." Most of us who have been relic hunting for years understand that each new relic hunt usually uncovers more questions than answers. There are no experts... only older students. However, I am not without a few humble suggestions and a handful of helpful hints to aid a young fellow, and others like him, in the quest for our nation's past.
Aim Small... Miss Small
Mark Baker coined this phrase in his epic work on early longhunters, Sons of a Trackless Forest, and it can easily be applied to beginning relic hunters. Keep your focus and the scope of your initial hunts narrow. Before you go out and search the world, learn about what's in your own backyard.
The best place to learn about the locale in which you live is to visit the "Local History" section of your nearby library. Read about the early origins of your hometown and county, and the small piece it played in the building of America.
[ urchase a good set of topographical maps to use along with the older maps. Remember that while the current maps will show a greatly changed environment, there will still exist certain natural landmarks that have resisted the march of time. These landmarks will be your guides to the past.
Another good way to learn about your area's past is to join your local historical society. Get to know your county historian and attend meetings or talks given on the subject of your local history.
Listen To Your Elders
I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard my father utter those words to me. In my youth, most of Pop's little homilies were destined to fall on deaf ears, but with age I learned that most of his advice was true.
Engage the elder citizens of your community in conversations about the past. They're a wealth of information, and they're living history. Older folks love to talk about the times that were, and how things have changed over the years. In fact, I find myself doing that a bit more often these days; and personally, that's a little scary.
You're bound to learn where houses once stood, and about stories the old-timers heard as youngsters. Old hunters are a particular source of good information to relic hunters. During their years in the woods they've passed any number of old foundations and old wells. They'll know where the old roads once were and the sites of early mills and quarries.
Mind Your Manners
We learn by doing, and finding someone who is already into the relic hunting experience is a good way to learn many of the finer points of this history-rich activity. Joining a local metal detecting club is one quick way to let others know you're interested in hitting the fields in search of relics.
Relic hunters are a peculiar sort, as a group and individually, so wait until you are invited on a hunt. Asking if you can "tag along" on a relic hunting trip will usually receive the standard answer, "Sure, one of these days." It's not because they don't like you or don't appreciate your interest. It's just that relic hunters who are searching productive sites are very hesitant to give away the results of their research. A feeling of trust needs to be established, initially, before a hunt takes place.
If, and when, you are asked to join a group of relic hunters, you assume certain obligations and responsibilities. You must respect the fact that it is not your site. You are there by invitation only. You can't return to the site on your own. You cannot go to the property owner and ask if it is all right for you to hunt his property because you did so with the group on a previous occasion. Perhaps the worst thing you could possibly do is to return to the site and bring others with you. I guess it just comes down to one thing- having good field manners.
If your initial trip with a group of relic hunters is a successful one, and here I am not talking about the number of relics you were able to recover, but rather how you fit into the group, you'll be asked to join them again. If you are not invited along on future trips, there is a reason for it. Don't bother asking again. Just consider the hunt a learning experience and find a site of your own.
The person who finds the site and gets permission to relic hunt the land is considered, in my own terms, the "primary." When you are the primary you can invite anyone you care to hunt with along on your search. However, until that time comes, you must either work at finding your own sites, or wait to be asked to join a group. It's just that simple.
Over the years, I've seen a lot of friendships broken up because people who were held in trust did not follow these unwritten rules of the field. It's really only common sense and common decency. Unfortunately, these qualities are not always that common.
Getting It Right The First Time
You've done your research. You've compared early maps with modern topographical maps. You've found your site. What's the next step?
You're standing at the edge of a field, scanning the open acres with your eyes. With so many acres before you, you hardly know where to start. Doing a visual survey of the ground will maximize the success of your relic hunt. If the soil has been recently plowed, or had had corn or vegetables harvested from it, I wouldn't even bother turning on my detector yet. Walk the fields with your eyes to the ground. Look for telltale signs of former habitation.
Look for concentrations of large stones which were dragged to the surface by a plow, as these may indicate the foundation of a former dwelling, or the remains of a filled-in well. Search the surface for small bits of broken glass, pottery, or pipe stems. Look for color indicators, the tiny red fragments of broken bricks, or the concentrated orange spots caused by rusting nails on the ground's surface. If the site borders on a river, creek, or stream, check the banks near the water's edge for any noticeable early debris.
Once you've been able to judge, from your visual survey of the land, where habitation once occurred, you're ready to crank up your detector.
Threading The Needle
When relic hunting, a good rule of thumb is to use as much sensitivity and as little discrimination as you can tolerate on the particular site. Some sites, like the remains of an old stockade fort, might require you to use more discrimination due to the multitude of nails and nail fragments. As you turn up the discrimination, you'll want to be sure that you are not knocking out any larger iron targets that might be desirable. The type and amount of minerals contained in the ground will also influence your sensitivity setting. The ease with which this "threading the needle" is accomplished is primarily determined by how well you know your detector and the conditions found on the particular site.
At Trail's End
Once you've recovered the relics from your site, they shouldn't be thrown in a bag or a five-gallon bucket. If they are historically significant, you are obligated to identify, clean, and preserve your finds. Being responsible for the care and display of the artifacts you have recovered is a large part of what it is to be a relic hunter. The knowledge you have been given by your recoveries should be shared. Relic hunting should never be the mere acquisition of so many pounds of artifacts. Each relic has its own tale... and it is up to the relic hunter to tell the stories of our nation's past.