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."
This French & Indian War era felling axe was found in three pieces, but once cleaned, a couple of small and unobtrusive tacks from a welder brought the pieces together again after almost 250 years.
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.
Following conservative cleaning, blades should be examined for manufacturers' and other markings that may assist in the dating process. This particular axe blade bears the stamp of British ownership, the broad arrow.
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.
Big iron comes in many forms. Usually among the easiest to detect, yet often the hardest to find, are cannonballs. The two flanking balls are iron, while in the center is a rare pewter cannonball.
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!"
One of the popular misconceptions is that cannonballs would explode. During the French & Indian War and the American Revolution, they were solid and not fused shells. Also shown here is a mortar bomb fragment, complete with fuse hole.
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.
This large, 8", thick-walled mortar bomb fragment is filled with musketballs for display purposes only. Such bombs were actually filled only with black powder during the Colonial era.
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!
You never know what kind of old iron is going to come out of the ground. Bayonets are easily identified, even by a novice, but a fascine knife might prove to be a little more difficult. If you don't know what it is now... keep it!
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.
When one tool is recovered, be sure to check the area carefully for more. Probably left by a work detail and later forgotten, these two felling axes were found only feet from each other.
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!
Be sure to get it all out of the ground. This tinned canteen, found in a 1759 context, came out of the ground in numerous pieces. While no longer serviceable, it certainly is displayable.
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.
The age of iron relics isn't always evident at first glance, either due to the conditions of the soil in which they rested all those years, or simply because they don't look old. This Revolutionary War era pick looks very similar to its modern counterparts.
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.
This old hoe was recovered at a house site dating back to the Colonial era. Just because it's not shining like silver or gold doesn't mean it lacks value. Document the provenance of such finds. It's far more than just a piece of rusty iron... it's a piece of our history.
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.
A twisted piece of barrel hoop and an iron ferrule... so what? Well, the twisted barrel hoop was used to hang a pot over the campfire and the ferrule reinforced a wooden tent peg. Both are great indicators for a Colonial era campsite!
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...