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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (06/2004) Relic Hunter (05/2004) Relic Hunter (07/2004)   Vol. 38 June 2004 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the June 2004 edition of W&ET Magazine

An Ode To Old Iron

By: Ed Fedory

It certainly doesn't seem like that many years since I was discriminating against iron targets, instead of trying to pick them up. I think the same is true for any of us who began hunting for coins in the initial phases of our using a metal detector. Funny how that discrimination knob or setting began being backed off during those intervening years of field experience! Equally true is the fact that I hate to think of those early days and some of those old cellar hole sites where I knew the target was iron... and left it in the ground, dismissing it quickly with, "It's just iron."

What I'll never forget is when that all changed. It was a few years before the Bicentennial, and I had received permission to search a large section of river flatlands from which the corn had just been harvested. An old fort had once existed on the site, and I knew the chances of finding some old coins and musketballs would be very good... and they were!

As I searched, my detector emitted crackling sounds when I swept the coil over sections of the site. There certainly appeared to be a lot of iron in those sections, and I even went to the extent of avoiding some areas due to their massive iron content. Yes, I was that much of a novice at one time, the truth be told.

One particular target signal was an interesting "iffy" signal... the kind of signal where you're just not sure if it's "good" or not, but figure you'd better dig it anyway. I dug it. Two minutes later, I was holding a half section of bar shot in my hand. The weight of that piece of iron in my collecting bag put a smile on my face, and I began wondering if I could find the other missing section of the piece. I didn't find it that day. It would be the following year, when I sifted it from a depth of nearly 3', that they could be mated together again, but I learned an important lesson... I'd have to turn down my discrimination if I were to stand any chance of finding the missing piece.

What I did find that day, however, was a lock plate from an old musket, and I added that to the growing weight in my collecting bag, and once again backed off on my discrimination setting. I picked up some larger nails, but along with those I also recovered a large iron key and a Colonial era awl. Once again the discrimination settings were lowered. Rosehead nails began surfacing, and I noticed that they were concentrated in several areas where the previous plowing had turned up some large stones. I started saving all of the complete nails after finally realizing that the concentrations of nails and stones were once the four blockhouses that helped form the defensive works of the stockaded fort.

When I returned home that evening and covered the kitchen table with all the recoveries I had made- hundreds of nails and assorted unidentifiable larger pieces of rusted iron, along with several dozen musketballs, pipe stems, broken glass, and pottery fragments- I received pretty much the same look from my wife as when the cat shows up at the doorstep with some dead animal clutched between its jaws. To say that she was less than impressed with all of the "history" lying on the kitchen table would be an understatement of monumental proportions.

Later, in the basement, I began cleaning some of my recoveries and realized that I would be digging a lot of rust in the future. The weekly flow of gold and silver rings, gleaned from parks and schoolyards, which my wife had grown to expect, suddenly became a small trickle and then ended. I guess my buddy, Chuck, summed it up best: "If you're going to relic hunt, then Rust is a Must!"

Unless I find myself in a situation where I am encountering large masses of more modern nails, my discrimination setting is usually down in the minimum range. I don't want to miss that belt axe forgotten by the side of a campfire 200 years ago, or that cannonball tucked neatly among all those roots at the base of a tree. I certainly don't want to repeat any of those mistakes I made during those initial years of relic hunting, or leave anything of historical significance in any of the ground I am searching.

I've also found that "iron likes its own company." By that I mean that if you happen to find one cannonball, there are usually more in the area. It seems to work the same way with Colonial tools as well. I know of a number of instances where several axe heads were recovered from the same hole, or within a few feet of each other. I have recovered large mortar bomb fragments from the depths of the soil, only to find, on checking the hole again, that more fragments still remained within.

Another aspect of searching for iron is that it gives us information about what once existed on a site, along with its age. Most relic hunters will be able to read volumes into a small handful of nails... the type of structure probably existing on the site years ago by the number and size of the nails... the age of the structure by the style of nails incorporated in its construction. In some cases, you'll actually be able to tell the approximate size of the structure by how far the nail content of the ground ranges.

One of the truly wonderful things about relic hunting is the fact that you're always going to be taught something you didn't know before. A perfect example of this happened when I was in Virginia last year searching for Union hut sites. My "tutors" instructed me to look for numerous small iron signals that would be generated by the small nails used to tack up the tent on the top of the hut. Then I was told that a clear indicator of a hut would be finding a barrel hoop. Now I have to admit, this one really had me stumped, until I was informed that a wooden barrel was often used to form the top section of the chimney for a hut. After downloading some contemporary pictures of Civil War encampments, I found that barrels served in quite a number of capacities... and finding barrel hoops is not so readily dismissed anymore!

Another facet of searching for old iron that never ceases to amaze me is the varying conditions in which iron comes from the ground. If the area is high and rocky, recovered iron artifacts usually come from the ground in remarkable condition. On the other hand, in areas that are low and subjected to the seasonal onslaughts of dampness or high water, iron items usually are recovered in a far less desirable shape. The duration of time in the ground is another important factor, as is the history of the land. If the land has been turned by the plow over the years &/or been subjected to fertilizers, or if the relics have been "on the move" within the soil, that can play an important part in the condition of the artifact being recovered.

There also exists an unstated obligation to diggers of rusty relics, and it can be summed up in just one word- preservation. Researching, locating, and removing the artifact is only half the job. If you don't intend to actively attempt to stop the process of oxidation, then just leave it in the ground for another relic hunter... or give it away to someone who will treat the metal and stop its deterioration.

A case in point should suffice. Well over a dozen years ago, I was invited to dig on a private island that once housed a major encampment of Colonial and British troops. Over the years the owner had extensively relic hunted his property, and he asked if I wanted to see some of his major recoveries. Of course, my answer was in the affirmative. A couple of minutes later, the owner and his son appeared carrying two large cardboard boxes. Tears become no man, but I was close to getting watery-eyed when I viewed the contents. In the box the father was holding I saw at least a dozen French & Indian War era bayonets rusted to the max, the bottom of the box blanketed with a layer of scales of rust as big as Cornflakes. The other contained an equal number of belt axes of the round poll variety... in the same deplorable condition. What should have been a great day of relic hunting was ruined from the beginning.

When it comes to the preservation of iron relics, I guess I would have to say that I am a minimalist. That is, I basically do enough preservation to the relic to end the rusting process, while attempting to retain the color and integrity of the artifact being cleaned. I want the relic to look its age, and don't want to see it polished up so that it appears to have just come off the shelf. A quick example will do to illustrate the point. After a buddy of mine recovered a Revolutionary War era cannonball, his first, I gave him some pretty simple instructions on how I thought he should proceed with the cleaning and preservation of the ball. Instead, he took the 12-pounder to work and sandblasted it! The effect gave one the impression of looking at an 11 lb. ball bearing! I doubt that anything resembling the history of that cannonball was left littering the floor of his shop!

I think the only time a small part of any relic should be brought down to bare metal is if you are going to use a small tack-weld to rejoin a couple of parts. Even in a case such as this, the tack should be unobtrusive and only large enough to keep the pieces together. "Tack from the back," or from the inside, if possible, so that the weld is not visible when the relic is displayed, and make attempts to mask the joint and match the color to the surrounding metal when the cleaning process has been completed.

On smaller or more delicate iron artifacts, there are times when some sacrifices have to be made in the process of preservation. When I have cleaned a heavily rusted iron artifact as much as I think it will structurally stand, I usually apply several coats of an automotive rust inhibitor called "Extend" to the relic. I paint the product on, rather than spraying it; and again, several coats are usually needed. I sacrifice the color of the object when I need to resort to this method of preservation, but the integrity of the artifact is retained.

On less heavily rusted relics, once the loose rust scales have been removed, quite often applying a paste car wax or rubbing polyurethane into the relic with a cloth will suffice. Every relic is different, and a little experimentation in preservation is usually needed.

On your next trip afield, crank down that discrimination setting to a minimum, and be prepared to add some interesting iron relics to your displays. And don't forget my buddy Chuck's sage wisdom...

"Rust is a Must!"














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