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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (08/2005) Relic Hunter (07/2005) Relic Hunter (09/2005)   Vol. 39 August 2005 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the August 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine

A Relic Hunter's Soapbox

By: Ed Fedory

I love the old stories... heard as a child, remembered as a man. Many are those pre-metal detecting tales of interesting and historic finds made with only a shovel and no small amount of luck. Tales of relics exposed on white sand stretches of some lonely beach, by some fortunate individual with a sharp eye and a curious mind. Stories of relics revealed on the shores of tidal rivers where the banks have eroded. Farmers' tales of treasures found with the blade of a plow, or of hunters spying lost cannons in the isolated reaches of a dense pine forest. Some of these adventures are sheer fabrications, grossly embellished over the passing years... others are true... all are entertaining.

Besides the enjoyment such stories give us, they also share another common element: they all seem to have taken place in the past. You just don't find an awful lot of relics and coins simply lying on the surface of the ground anymore. Some of us who walked and searched the fields 30 years ago remember those special sites... places where you could fill up half your collecting bag with clay pipe stems and musketballs, gun flints and arrowheads. Those types of sites are very rare today- if they continue to exist at all.

Nobody is re-seeding the ground with relics. Schoolyards, baseball diamonds, parks, and beaches can be searched every year; and from their constant foot traffic, the ground is replenished with lost coins, rings, and an assortment of interesting and valuable objects. The same is not true for the world of the relic hunter. The once clearly identifiable footprints of our past are rapidly fading, and a lot of this change has taken place well within the span of recent memory.

You don't really have to be a "rocket surgeon" to figure out why the change is taking place... it's pretty obvious. The world around us is getting smaller as populations are growing larger. For most of us, all we have to do is look beyond our front doors to view the communities in which we live. The old King's Road that once brought troops from the southern parts of our state to Albany is now lined with housing developments and strip malls. Once pastoral farmlands are now zoned for industrial use. Dirt roads are paved over, and paved roads become superhighways. Some people call it progress... most acknowledge that it is inevitable. Everything just seems to be getting a whole lot bigger, and a whole lot faster. Prime relic hunting sites, open lands where once your boots could sink into the soft and yielding soil, are now covered with concrete foundations and asphalt driveways.

Where Civil War soldiers dug their winter huts, waiting on the spring to continue their fight to preserve the Union... a housing development. Where the early Dutch once lived in small cottages along the banks of the Hudson... a multi-level parking garage. Where once noble tribes lived and warriors fashioned bird points from native stone... a marina and restaurant complex. The list is as endless as it is usually tragic.

It certainly doesn't look like I am painting a very bright picture for the future of relic hunting. If that happens to be the way you're reading this, thank a teacher- you get an A+ for reading skills.

If there's any light at the end of the tunnel, I don't see it. Agencies empowered to oversee such development are powerless. Archaeological impact studies for site development will be conducted, a few artifacts will be recovered and tucked away, usually to be followed by the earthmovers and cement trucks. Archaeologists rarely raise a stink about most of this... they've gotten their fees for a site survey and consider a 1,000-car parking lot to be a good form of "encapsulation." We can't have any of those relic hunters (usually the nicest word we are called) digging anything from the past, when we can lock it down under hundreds of tons of oil-based byproducts for the next couple of centuries, now can we?

Other governmental agencies, on both the federal and state levels, aggressively conduct land purchases to insulate their primary historic parks. In other cases, they openly court landowners with the thought of future big-bucks payoffs as long as their properties are not opened to relic hunters. Private historic sites do pretty much the same thing with monies received from state and federal grants... not to mention all the proceeds from the snack bar.

When we can find an open area of land that might have some relic hunting prospects and potential, it usually comes down to the flip of a three-sided coin. Heads, the property owners think you're going to unearth a Spanish galleon full of silver pieces-of-eight and gold doubloons buried in their cornfield. Tails, they're afraid that if you twist your ankle while on their property you'll grab your cell phone, call Wee, Cheatum, & Howe, and bring a lawsuit against them. If the coin happens to land on the reeded edge? Well, then you've got permission.

In truth, relic hunters are partly to blame for the lack of sites to hunt. Blame only falls on the heads of a few, but often that is all it takes. Sneaking onto property and relic hunting without permission is an easy way to get a good site shut down. The digging of holes is rarely a problem for any farmer who plows the fields, but not filling in those same holes is likely to get you and other relic hunters an invitation to leave the property. I've known a large number of farmers over the years, and they are generally a very fair group of people. A lot of common sense and love of the land exists in that portion of our population. By the same token, farmers can be very set in their ways, and once you have permission rescinded, you have about as much luck getting permission to hunt their land again, as you would trying to push a truck up a hill with a rope. It just doesn't happen.

In today's world, relic hunters just have to think a little harder and be a little smarter. Along with the so-called "progress" that has limited the amount of open land on which to hunt, have come several tools that can enable us to fine-tune our research and hunting techniques.

Ask anyone who has relic hunted for over 20 years how many metal detectors he has owned, and the number he lays claim to will astound you. I often think that it is mainly the relic hunting facet of our hobby that keeps detector manufacturers knocking on the doors of their research & development departments for more powerful and deeper penetrating detectors... and there are some really deep penetrating detectors... and there are some really deep seekers on the market today. Every advance in detector technology gives the relic hunter a better edge toward making significant finds.

Along with other detector technology, so has searchcoil technology advanced, and in many cases it has changed to accommodate different types of relic hunting. There are small and powerful coils that will penetrate trashy areas, and very large coils for finding those deep iron signals. The perfect combination of detector and coil is the key to relic hunting success.

I think one of the greatest weapons in the relic hunter's arsenal today is the Internet. With this unique tool the libraries of the world are open to us, a fantastic aid to researching new sites. Websites of a historical nature run the gamut from those of your local historical society to collections in national and state archives. There are tens of thousands of old photographs, not to mention old and historic maps to be found with the punching of only a few keys.

Only recently, I was able to find a set of Revolutionary War maps that displayed a small but interesting lakeside gun emplacement. I compared that map with a USGS topographic map, and found that the land containing the gun emplacement had not, as yet, been developed. It is a site I will soon visit, seeking permission... detector in hand!

The Internet is also a great tool for identifying the relics you recover, not only through photographic identification, but also by putting you in contact with people who are knowledgeable in very specific areas.

As I prepare to dismount this relic hunting soapbox, know that while the search for relics gets a little tougher with each passing year, there's still an awful lot of interesting finds to be made in the depths of the earth. Despite governmental regulations, reservations of the archaeological community, and the massive impact of over-development, the quest for our nation's history will relentlessly continue, and the common man will still have the ability and the avenues by which to caress the past, as he stumbles toward the future.

I trust it will always be so!

Of Grapeshot And Grenades

It certainly was an amazing day of discoveries on the site of that old stockaded fort... a site now owned by the state, with access to relic hunters denied. It was a day for the recoveries of Colonial era, anti-personnel weapons- in particular, grenades and grapeshot.

Our earliest searches were conducted within the area once enclosed by the log walls, but as the number of relics recovered began to drop in frequency, we searched the fields beyond. I had heard of grenades being used during King George's War, and in fact the earliest recorded use of the grenade in combat dates back to the 14th century, but I had never been lucky enough to find a single fragment. That relic hunt would be different.

Ranging out perhaps 75' from where the north wall had once stood, I heard a large signal from my detector, and upon recovery, found that I was holding what appeared to be a fragment from a very small mortar bomb. It was only later, after a thorough cleaning, preservation, and research, that I realized I had found my first fragments of Colonial hand grenades; for surely, with the number of fragments recovered, there had to have been more than one thrown from the ramparts of the fort.

Averaging about 4" in diameter and filled with blackpowder, they could easily be a very grim deterrent for any troops attacking the walls of the fort. The ignition system was simple. A fuse or match was fixed in place to a hole in the iron ball, coming into contact with the powder. The fuse was lit... the grenade tossed... and the ensuing blast and flying iron fragments would cut down any troops within close proximity. Timing was just as easily accomplished by cutting the fuse to any desired length.

Later in the afternoon, and knowing from our research that the "fort responded with grape and round," we headed deeper into the open fields. About 100 yards from the fort site, we pulled the first piece of iron grapeshot from the ground. Our collecting bags soon became so weighted down that we set them on the ground instead of wearing them. Within the space of a few hours, we had dug well over 100 rounds.

The grapeshot recovered was of various sizes, ranging from 3/4" to 1-1/4". This form of artillery projectile was very effectively used to mow down entire ranks of attackers.

A canvas bag, attached to a wooden sabot, was filled with rounds of grape and then corded around to keep the projectiles in a tight group for ramming down the barrel of the cannon. When the cannon was fired, the resulting blast would tear the iron load apart with much the same effect as a giant shotgun blast. The attacking French and Indian allies didn't stand much of a chance against such awesome firepower.

Anti-personnel weapons such as grenades and grapeshot are still used today in various forms and with more sophisticated delivery systems, yet even from those primitive beginnings, they remain a formidable force in America's arsenal.

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