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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (07/2003) Relic Hunter (06/2003) Relic Hunter (08/2003)   Vol. 37 July 2003 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the July 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine

A Search For Woodland Time Capsules

By: Ed Fedory

Sitting here, still in the grips of a seemingly endless winter, my thoughts turn to that first hunt of the season, only a few short weeks away. I know you're reading this in the July issue, but as I'm writing it the snow is still on the ground. However, the river ice is starting to move south with the outgoing tide, the red-winged blackbirds have returned, and I actually saw a wooly bear caterpillar moving in the sun yesterday. The last snowstorm was on Thursday, and Friday morning's temperature was only 9*, but how far off can spring be? Soon

I've got a couple of hot leads for that first hunt, and heading into the woods is something my boots are itching to do. It's been far too long, and while it's kind of hard to think about metal detecting and relic hunting when you haven't seen any open ground since Thanksgiving, the day is coming. At least that's what they tell me.

We're going to start off a little slow this year and stay local

Finding cellar holes has never been much of a problem, especially living in a rural community within a rock's throw of a large river. This area in upstate New York has been populated for over 300 years, and if you were to count the number of original homes that are still standing from those early Colonial times, it would be no great task. You wouldn't have to take your socks off to make the final count!

Burned, abandoned, neglected, and ruined, those early structures finally became part of the forest floor, and with them fell the litter of the ages and the treasures of the past.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the remains of those old dwellings. You can sit on the side of the cellar hole, beside the laid-up stone foundations, and wonder about the lives of those who once lived on the site

You can never tell what is going to come from the ground surrounding such sites. You can always count on some early coins, and more than your fair share of eating utensils, but I wouldn't have expected to see two shako plates from the War of 1812 surface at two different sites. I would have expected the requisite number of brass curtain rings and some drawer pulls, but I wouldn't have expected a Confederate Block "I" button, or a French & Indian War bayonet to see the light of day after being interred for so many years

You needn't have attended any MENSA conventions to search around old cellar holes, but there are a few tricks and techniques I've used over the years that might make your first couple of attempts a little less frustrating and a lot more successful. To veteran hunters, some of these tips will appear as little more than common sense, and for that I will beg your indulgence, but I wouldn't stop reading just yet. It's said that "even a blind pig can sometimes find an acorn (insert truffle if you happen to be of the French persuasion)," because I just might have an angle or two which you've yet to add to your bag of cellar hole tricks.

Where Are They?

Well, they're just about everywhere, and perhaps I should have entitled this section, "How to Find 'Em." The first place to look for the sites of former homes is in your local library, and especially in books on your county history. In many cases, these volumes will be accompanied by an atlas of the area. Pay close attention to the old backroads and compare the older maps with modern topographic maps. Look for inconsistencies in both roads and dwellings

Some of the older roads will seem to have disappeared on the modern maps, but they are still there. They'll have a totally different appearance these days. They'll be brush and tree encroached and may appear to be little more than a wide dirt trail. Any bridges that may have once spanned the streams over the course of the old road will have disappeared by now, leaving only their stone-faced abutments. The homes that once lined their path will remain only as weed-choked stone foundations.

Often, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of rhyme or reason to the placement of these old dwellings. Some are found on high ground, some on low ground

Packing Your Kit

Or, "What Should I Bring?" For a standard search of an old dwelling, bring your favorite detector, but also add a small searchcoil to your backpack. Often the areas that are the closest to the foundation will be littered with nails and the remains of metal flashing. Using a large or standard size coil in such an area can become the ultimate lesson in frustration. Using a small coil with a small "target footprint" will enable you to "thread the needle" around some of the junk target and help you pinpoint, with far greater ease, the good targets for which you are searching.

This idea also holds true if you are one of the adventurous types and decide to slide over the top of the foundation and into the cellar hole itself. Remember, no matter what the source of destruction, whether by fire or just deterioration, most of the former dwelling will be found in the basement where it collapsed

Search Strategies

After you've spent some of your time around, and perhaps in, the cellar hole, your search should range out to the adjoining property. There are several features for which you should be looking. One of the primary ones is the well. It may be covered with a large, flat piece of slate, or it might be open. There may also be a cistern for collecting water. They are usually found very near the cellar hole, but be sure you don't find it by falling in. They are one of the few dangers encountered when searching the sites of old dwellings. Once you have found the well, carefully search around it and run a series of search patterns back toward the foundation. This area will have seen a good deal of foot traffic over the years, and is usually the best place to find lost articles.

Another land feature you should be looking for is the site of the privy. Sometimes it may appear to be a slight depression in the ground, surrounded by a small stone foundation that once supported the structure. There might be some very lush vegetation growing in the area, and old lilacs. Obviously, this area saw a lot of foot traffic as well.

Land sloping away from the structure may once have held an old orchard and fruit trees. Such areas should be carefully searched. Some of the best finds I've made over the years around old cellar holes have come from areas that were once covered with fruit trees, and the old and gnarled stump of an apple tree may be all you need to put you on the scent.

Often, the remains of outbuildings can also be found

Some of the sites you will search will invariably have seen a metal detector before. Working slowly and enduring certain frustrations on such sites will often pay off. Many previous hunts may have been short, and thus only the surface of the site's potential has been touched. Even experienced cellar hole searchers leave something in the ground for those who come after.

This simple fact was driven home to me not long ago. A buddy wanted to try a new detector around a site I had searched on numerous occasions several years earlier. I told him to give it the best shot he had, but I didn't think too much was going to be lining the bottom of his collecting bag. I had to eat my words an hour and a half later when he returned with a Seated Liberty dime, an early large cent, and a Civil War era button

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