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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (08/2003) Relic Hunter (07/2003) Relic Hunter (09/2003)   Vol. 37 August 2003 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the August 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine

Colonial Camp Life: Livin' It And Diggin' It

By: Ed Fedory

Treasure comes in many forms, but to most people it conjures up the image of ill-gotten booty stuffed into a massive ornate box and buried deep in the sands. To others, it might be a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, guarded by the wee people, or protected by elfish charms of yore. To a relic hunter, a treasure can range from a dented canteen to a cannonball... or, a personalized fine tooth comb to an Enfield lock plate. The field is pretty wide open and usually depends on uniqueness, or personal tastes. I've seen gold come from the ground and have dug more than my fair share of old silver, but to a relic hunter "rust is a must," and the historic value of the objects we dig rarely depends on the metal of which the relic is composed.

Since I started historical reenacting lifestyles and events from the period of the French & Indian War and the American Revolution, I've noted a change in my focus of interest for the period. Indeed, I love to stand in the line with my fellows of the regiment and engage in volley fire with the opposing forces, be they French or British... and it sure is fun, and certainly a challenge, to sneak up on a group of painted and unsuspecting Native Allies. And nothing can compare to the heightened state of your senses- the eerie sound of a light breeze, the nervous scampering of a chipmunk, the wafting perfume of the forest- as you sit in ambush, listening for the crunch of a dry leaf under a moccasined foot. Yet however exciting all that combat is, the majority of your time is spent in camp... and being in camp is a wonderful experience!

Camp is filled with the sights and smells of a world far removed from most of our 21st century experiences. Gone are the whistles, bells, horns, and alarms by which we segment our daily routines. In such a world, the sound of a child's laughter, the beat of a distant drum, the hoarse laughter to an unknown joke, can once again be heard. In such a world, life revolves around numerous campfires, the hub of Colonial existence. Events and people are seen in a different light... half-light and shadows... far removed from the glare of fluorescent lamps and halogen bulbs.

Food, and its preparation, takes on a major role when we divest ourselves of the trappings of the 21st century, and the utensils that are used are often quite different from the ones with which we are familiar today.

Digging up cooking tools and eating utensils from the 1700s on the sites of old forts and camps, and then using similar items in a reenacting context, is a wonderful learning experience. Some of the tools are easily recognizable- the remains of a two-tined fork, for example- but you would be amazed at the number of ingenious ways our Colonial forefathers could reshape and twist barrel hoops to meet their campfire cooking needs! I remember the first time I dug up one of these Colonial fabrications. The site was a British encampment dating from 1759, and the piece of flat iron that I took from the ground was twisted in a far too symmetrical shape to have been a coincidence. I knew it was a "keeper," but just what it was used for was, at the time, unknown to me. That evening, I found a similar twisted piece of barrel hoop in Neumann & Kravic's book, Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, and saw that I had recovered a barrel hoop pot hanger. It wasn't silver or gold, but it gave me a perfect example of how wonderfully crafty and ingenious those early soldiers could be with everyday and common camp fixtures.

The remains of cooking and eating utensils are a good way to date the age of the site you are searching. This is especially true on sites where there is very little historical documentation. If you find yourself digging three- or four-tined forks the evidence would generally indicate a 19th century site. If the knives you recover show the remains of pistol-grip bone handles, the site probably dates from the early 1700s, while riveted handles would indicate a date from the middle of that same century.

On larger cooking utensils, such as cooking forks, one of the first things I attempt to do is determine the type of manufacture. On blacksmith hand-forged items you can usually find places where the iron has been split during the fabrication stages of the tool; later cast cooking tools do not have this feature. Another good indicator is the finial at the end of the tool. Older cooking tools generally have a hammered loop or hook at the end for hanging.

Many of these larger tools come from the ground in quite a good state and are easily cleaned for display purposes. Removing layers of rust with a wire wheel and baking the tools after having applied some vegetable oil to them can almost bring them back to a near serviceable state. If the recovered piece is not in the best of condition, use caution and be conservative in the amount of cleaning you subject the relic to, and use a rust inhibitor such as Extend or Endrust as a final coating. Collections of camp life relics can often make an interesting supplemental display, illustrating what typical daily life was like during the period of your main collection.

When searching around early cellar holes, forts, or large encampments, among the iron items you are bound to pick up are the remains of cast iron cooking pots. Most of these early cooking pots had three legs and a bail so that they could be either stood in the coals or hung above them. They are common to most early sites, and if you find enough large pieces, reassembly should be out of the question. If you don't have the availability of a welding unit, there is a product on the market called J-B Weld, which can help with any reassembly problems. I recently used this product to repair several broken runners on a Colonial, rotating gridiron known commonly as a "spider," and the results far exceeded my expectations. This particular relic will be put back into service again this year when the reenacting season begins. I don't think it's been used in over a century and a half, but it will be interesting to gain the first-hand experience of cooking on a Revolutionary War era relic!

Pewter is another commonly used metal in regard to camp life during the Colonial period. It was easily cast and was used to make plates (trenchers), spoons, and porringers. Your most common finds will be spoons, and these will usually be fragmentary. The shape of the bowl and the ornamentation on the handle will generally be the best way to determine the age of your find. Colonial spoons usually have larger, rounder, and heavier bowls, and are far less ornamented than those of the following century. Always be sure to check any recovered spoons very carefully, especially when found in a military context, as many have been personalized with initials, or bear regimental numbers.

One fact that is very interesting about early pewter is that you don't find many large pieces of it. When a large kettle, porringer, or tankard became unserviceable, it was usually melted down into spoons, or in some cases, musket and rifle balls. Over the last several decades, I've managed to find at least a half dozen of these lighter balls in the fields surrounding frontier forts and settlements, so apparently it was a rather common practice.

A word of caution should be sounded when dealing with old pewter. Old tankards, plates, and spoons composed of pewter contained a high amount of lead, and it would probably be wise to avoid eating or drinking with them. Remember, we're talking about a time in history when everything you used did not come with an individual warning label!

One of the truly remarkable things about relic hunting is the number of different turns that your investigations into the world of the past might take. I never thought for a second that I would find the use of primitive cooking and eating tools as interesting as I do today. It has given me an insight into the ingenuity of those who went before us... a time in which common sense was, well, common... and everyone seemed to have had at least one "clever" hand.

However, if you notice that I have found a new and exciting fascination for Colonial draperies and window treatments, promise to do one thing for me. Drag me behind my barn and put me out of my misery!

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