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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (02/2003) Relic Hunter (01/2003) Relic Hunter (03/2003)   Vol. 37 February 2003 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the February 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine

Pictures Of The Past

By: Ed Fedory

They say that, "The longest of journeys begins with but a single footstep," and I'd have to say that this expression is very close to the mark when it comes to relic hunters. All we have to do is look back to that initial old non-coin recovery. In some cases it might have been a Colonial buckle, or perhaps one from the Civil War. Was it a Minie, or a musketball... an old button with an interesting design or number? At that point in time, and with that recovery in hand, we probably didn't realize that we had opened a new door and were heading down a very long hallway leading to the past.

It is a hallway filled with numerous doors, and as we travel its course, we might chance to open a few of those doors as we pass. Some might lead to Indian Wars sites, another to recoveries from the Civil War. As we travel farther down that corridor of time, we pass other doors which are clearly labeled: War of 1812... the American Revolution... French & Indian War... Queen Anne's War. Indeed, it is a very long hall down which we travel!

Some of the rooms beyond the doors we may find interesting and comfortable. The walls are lined with legions of books, dusty and time-worn, their pages dog-eared by others who have been here before us, sought the secrets of the past, and left their own notes, in a crabbed hand, in the margins. They are the clues that lead us to the field and forests, with digging tool and detector in hand, to learn of the past from the relics we recover.

When it comes to being a historical romantic, I guess I am incurable. I can't dig a musketball without wondering who fired it and the circumstances under which it was fired. Was its final objective a deer, some meat for the table; or was it a man, an enemy, a foe? That small Colonial brass thimble, lost on the site of a stockaded fort, makes me wonder about life on the frontier for a young girl. What were her aspirations? Did she live to become an old woman, bent by age and struggle, yet filled with tales of what the "old days" were like, stories to thrill her grandchildren? Or was hers one of the many small, longhaired scalps that graced a lodge pole in some primitive village of painted men? It's difficult to be a relic hunter and not romanticize the past or the people who lived it.

I'll let you in on a little secret... this little piece that I'm writing wasn't supposed to be this month's column. The column was supposed to deal with "Big Silver" of the Colonial sort. I guess that column might be written next month, and it all stems from the fact that I got lost in one of those "rooms" yesterday. It was a cool day, one of my office windows was open, and I wanted to check out some recent photos I had taken. I rarely get visitors in my office, so everything is usually where I put it. However, due to some mental preoccupation, the photos were not where I thought I had put them, so the search began. Once I entered my photo files, my day was gone... I was lost.

I was lost in three decades of nostalgic memories. There were photos of the great hunts- and the not so great hunts- thousands of pictures of recovered relics, some I had found and others recovered by fellow relic hunters. There were hunt pictures... wide open fields, and thick forests... broad creeks... high mountains. There were hundreds of pictures of fellows with whom I had shared those hunts. Some I still hunt with... others, I don't... some are dead, lost threads that form that fabric we call history. There weren't many frowns or disgruntled looks in those pictures, but there were a lot of smiles. We shared a common bond, and a common quest, the search for history and the ability to understand it a little better. None of us ever considered ourselves pros... just older students... and I guess there existed a common joy in such common pursuits. Yes, maybe that was it.

As I flipped through the photos, I saw many images of relics still found on the shelves of my office, or in the glass-faced cabinets. I saw other images of artifacts that were sold by some fellow relic hunters who saw only the dollar signs and cared little for the historic value of their recoveries. For the most part, they were relic miners, and I go to great lengths to avoid searching with them.

"How much is it worth?" is one of the questions I dislike most, but perhaps that is merely a sign of the times, akin to judging a man by the salary he earns. I like it when people ask about the best find you ever made, and you'll rarely, if ever, find a true relic hunter listing big dollar items along with his best find.

I found a picture of my relic hunting buddy, Roger Maben, yesterday, and he was holding what he considers to be the best find he ever made. It wasn't the 1839 half dollar, or the half dozen War of 1812 buttons he dug from a very small area. It was a picture of Roger holding a little hand-forged frying pan. I wrote a story about it once. It was a story about a father making his way back from the village blacksmith's shop with a very special present for his daughter on a snowy December evening. You could read volumes into that one-pound piece of rusty, beaten iron that you'd never get from recovering a silver dollar. We'll never know the true story about that little frying pan, but I'm sure that one existed and it revolved around a smile on a young girl's face.

One photo contained a picture of five pieces-of-eight and three other pieces of Spanish silver flanking a bent and tarnished silver disk. That sorely worn disk of silver, found in the remains of a soldier's purse, had once been a British sixpence... a love token. For years I didn't know why that disk of silver was carried along with a number of coins of such finer quality, nor did I realize the human significance it contained. When the realization finally came, it arrived with the force of a sledgehammer blow!

To give you the short version, if a young Englishman was endeared to a young lady he would give her a new sixpence. The ends of the sixpence were bent, so when looking for coins in her purse, the young lady would know which coin not to take out for payment. The coin, through numerous years of being abraded by other coins in the purse, had become completely smooth.

However, this still left one question: what was it doing in some soldier's purse? Finally, like getting hit square in the forehead with a crystal bullet, the reason came to me. It had been given to a young soldier as a good luck token by one of his female family members... a mother, or perhaps a grandmother. It had brought her years of good luck, and perhaps it would do as much for her son or grandson, who would be traveling across the seas to an unknown wilderness empire to fight for king and country.

That little piece of twisted silver was representative of a love that was centuries old... and forever, as well, it will stand as my best find.

Close to the front of the file I found more recent photographs of our latest adventures. Instead of digging history, we were attempting to re-create it. The term "living history" is often used to refer to re-enacting, and it offers an entire different perspective to an understanding of history. I think Charlie Ashby, another relic hunting buddy, found out very quickly how easy it was to lose shoe buckles, and why we find the remains of so many on Colonial sites. After repeated attempts at keeping his shoe buckles on, Charlie finally gave up. I later found him sitting before the campfire with needle and leather palm-patch in hand, stitching loops in the leather of his shoes to replace the buckles with leather laces. It worked, and while we later found ourselves as casualties on the killing fields of Ticonderoga, at least Charlie was able to die with his shoes on!

We've lost numerous pewter buttons on our campaigns, and I still can't find one of my two-tined forks. There's more than one discarded musket flint littering the field along with its lead wrapper, and for the life of me, I don't know what ever happened to that pewter copy of a piece-of-eight I used to carry in my "possibles" bag- although, I do seem to remember a smile on the face of a comely tavern maid as she refilled my tankard with shrub!

Yes, it all comes down to the beauty of history... whether you're digging it or doing it!

It's strange how fast an afternoon can pass while looking at stacks of old photos and remembering old times... old hunts... old friends. I'd like to think that future hunts will hold as many thrills and joys- and smiles. Photos of new finds and new friends will be added to those of old, and perhaps next month I can stop all this wool-gathering and get on with that story about "Big Silver."

Maybe tomorrow...

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