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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (11/2004) Relic Hunter (10/2004) Relic Hunter (12/2004)   Vol. 38 November 2004 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the November 2004 edition of W&ET Magazine

It All Comes Back Around

By: Ed Fedory

I am starting to get the feeling that there is something very cyclic about relic hunting. I probably need to clarify that statement with some sort of explanation so that you understand where I am coming from on this point. In order to do that, I have to bring you back some 35 years to the period in my life when I was a near-starving college student in coastal Maine.

On the rare occasions when I was not either working or attending classes, I would spend my time searching along the coastline of Rogue's Bluff or the Machias River for any treasures which might have been revealed with the receding tide. Armed with a metal detector that cost under $50 (which, by the way, was the equivalent of my weekly paycheck at the time), I would search the shoreline for old coins and relics. I was able to find, even with such low-end equipment, my first gold ring, a bunch of silver coins, and, remarkably, a few Minie balls and a butt plate from an early Springfield.

During these searches I also stumbled onto an area where there was an extensive amount of broken glass. Further investigations revealed the site of an old dwelling on the small bluff above that section of the shore, and I noted that the broken glass was due to the erosion of a section of the bank behind the house where the dump must have been situated. I figured I was on to something and began digging into the sandy escarpment above the river's edge. Within minutes I had pulled a small bitters bottle and a beautiful dark green, case gin bottle from the sand. That was just the beginning!

It wasn't long before all of my free time was spent searching the river's edge for similar sites, and I was able to find quite a few of them. However, after graduation I left Maine behind, along with any passion for digging bottles I may have possessed.

With the big Bicentennial approaching, my interests shifted to the American Revolution and relic hunting the numerous sites in upstate New York relating to that period in our nation's history. Yet I never thought about bottles much during that period of time, either. It was mostly surface hunting I was engaged in - now with a high-end metal detector in my grips!

I found myself becoming a "relic hunting snob" of sorts, as I would repeatedly turn down the opportunities to hunt sites from the 1800s. I was specializing in an earlier period, and never gave any thought to searching locations dating from the period of the American Civil War. Boy, has that mind-set changed!

With my first few Civil War relic hunts under my belt, I also find that the passion for pulling a complete bottle from the floor of a Civil War soldier's hut has been rekindled. I hadn't thought about digging bottles for over 30 years, but now the thought of finding an umbrella inkwell or a cathedral pepper sauce bottle is continually on the forefront of my mind. I've come full-circle once again, and I find that fact kind of amazing. I guess it must always be that way when you find out something new about yourself. Suddenly, I'm investigating a period of history that never held much interest for me. It may have started as a little spark, but fanned by some buddies in Virginia, I find the flames of interest steadily mounting.

I witnessed the recovery of a huge amount of relics on my last trip to Virginia, but I have to admit that it was the wide assortment of bottles that grabbed a good deal of my interest and enthusiasm. I know I wasn't the only relic hunter on the field so affected. It seemed as if every time a bottle was exposed in the bottom of a pit, everyone's digging was suspended and a large knot of people would gather around the edges of the hole to witness the final painstaking stages of recovery.

A few of those individual recoveries would be hard to forget. I watched in amazement as my buddy, George Simmers, finally reached the hard-packed floor of an officer's hut and, while removing the soil from around and beneath a couple of large stones, revealed the edge of an emerald-green cathedral pickle bottle. That's pretty much the time for serious nail biting and lofting prayers to the heavens. With only a small section of the bottle protruding from the earth, your hopes are riding on the fact that the bottle is undamaged and complete... accompanied by the parallel thought that you won't do something to make it incomplete!

When you're in the bottom of a 4' deep hole, facing the recovery of a potentially valuable bottle... when you're surrounded by onlookers three deep, watching your every move toward recovery... well, you're pretty much on your own. Nobody's going to offer you too much advice on how they would go about the recovery. It just comes down to a one-man operation: your bottle... your treasure... your problem.

George's recovery was successful, and the hushed awe that had previously gripped the group soon gave way to multiple congratulations. It was only after the recovery was complete that advice was given. I listened very carefully to the suggestions offered by Ernest Bower on how to treat the bottle after it had been excavated - things to do, and especially things not to do. Ernest's advice was grounded in decades of relic hunting and bottle digging, and if there were any experts on the field that day, Ernest was certainly among them. His skills at relic identification were unparalleled, and more than once I had to seek him out to get an opinion on a recovered relic.

As we dug our huts, it became obvious that the individual soldier's personal characteristics would play a great part in the amount of relics we would be able to recover. My digging partner, Charlie, and I had the questionable ability to locate what must have been the huts of the "regimental neat freaks." One particular hut contained only two small pieces of buckshot. We dug an entire morning on that particular hut before attempting to find the site of another.

On the other hand, Donnie Smith's hut yielded an instant Civil War relic collection. You could just stand there at the edge of the hole and shake your head as umbrella inkwells, buttons, bullets, pickle bottles, pepper sauce bottles, and a wide assortment of other interesting relics were unearthed.

George Lesche, owner and designer of Predator Tools, was one of the late arrivals, but it didn't take him very long to begin his own relic collection, as he quickly moved the earth down to a level where he could recover another umbrella inkwell and a small hair tonic bottle.

Most of the hut sites contained amounts of melted lead, and it was George who found a novel use for it. He had the scrap lead cast into Union soldiers and then carefully painted. I have one of these lead soldiers standing on a shelf in my office... a great memento of a wonderful weekend of relic hunting!

curity, but my bags were held up for a careful inspection. I watched as the security officer went through the bag. He reached into one of the side pockets and tried to get a grip on it contents. It was a little awkward, and he found he needed two hands to heft it out. He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face.

"It's a brick," I saidrd, and he found he needed two hands to heft it out. He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face.

"It's a brick," I saidScurity, but my bags were held up for a careful inspection. I watched as the security officer went through the bag. He reached

Seeing that the conversation wasn't getting very far, I had to explain that we had just completed a dig on a Union encampment, and the brick was from a Union officer's hut site.

"A brick," the security officer once again muttered. "Now that's one for the books!"

As we headed down the runway, I ran that limited conversation through my mind a couple of times and finally came up with only one conclusion: very few people are cut out to be relic hunters! Author's Note: If you care to see the full extent of the recoveries made at this Virginia Union encampment, be sure to visit the "Diggin'" forum on

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