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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (10/2005) Relic Hunter (09/2005) Relic Hunter (11/2005)   Vol. 39 October 2005 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the October 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine

Deep Digging: Adventures Beneath The Plow Zone

By: Ed Fedory

There are those times and situations when a metal detector just will not answer to a relic hunter's needs. It doesn't make any difference which type or brand of detector you choose to use... some types of hunting are well beyond the capabilities of even the most high-end detectors. Generally, these types of situations revolve around targets that are either very deep or a non-metallic nature. Certain sites and relics dictate that the shovel, in all its various sizes and shapes, become the primary tool, while the metal detector plays a secondary and minor role as a pinpointing device once the relic-bearing layer of soil has been reached. Under other conditions, the detector might put you on the initial area to search, but the shovel will once again become your primary recovery tool.

I remember realizing, years ago, after having completed a thorough surface hunt that spanned several months on the site of a 1740s fort site, that there were several types of artifacts I would not be able to add to my collection of relics from the site if I did not get below the plow line. On each of those surface hunts I would continually stoop down to pick up fragments of old clay pipes. On the return home from a day in the field, I would find my collecting bag filled with broken pipe stems and pipe bowl fragments, but a complete example could not be found.

To remedy the situation, I knew that I would have to find one of the fort's structures and then search in and around it. To that end, my dad made me several probes to enable me to find the remains of the blockhouse foundations. This was a pretty easy task, as you could see where some of the foundation stones had been dragged to the surface during the previous plowing. Additionally, knowing from research that the foundations would be 24' square, I simply found the four corners and commenced digging and sifting every shovelful of soil from the interior of the blockhouse foundations. In this fashion, I was able to add several complete pipe bowls, and two almost complete pipes to my collection. Numerous pieces of pottery and glass, musket flints, and metallic relics found too deep for mt detector, added to my knowledge and understanding of the site. I thought that would be the last time I would ever be forced to resort to a probe and a lot of heavy digging. Once again, I was wrong!

On the surface, the probe seems a rather simple tool... merely a T-handle on a long, slender metal shaft, with a small button of steel at the end. It's in using the probe where experience, technique, and knowledge come in really handy. I can think of no better example of probe use, and its subsequent rewards, than the adventure in deep digging that Andy Goldfrank, Kevin Ambrose, and Rick Stahovec shared on a recent hut-digging expedition.

"After reviewing serial aerial photographs of areas that had already been dug, and some existing photos of the site at the time of the Civil War," stated Andy, "I saw some discrepancies. There were gaps in certain areas where I believed that more deep Union army huts should exist. I knew that most of my fellow relic hunters were using their detectors to help them locate the sites of huts, but I also knew that it would be impossible to find the really deep huts in that manner."

Andy's been an ardent privy digger for well over a decade, and he brought his privy digging and probing experience to the fields that day. "Using my five-foot probe on the first day of the relic hunt, I was able to locate, at a depth of about four feet, the remains of a large building to which was attached a smaller hut, each sharing a common fire pit. I spent the better part of two days searching those structures with great results. During that time I recovered a complete carbine, bullets, buttons, a scabbard tip, and all sorts of smaller items like knapsack hooks. However, what I really wanted to find was some intact glass pieces.

"At dinner the previous evening, I had met Kevin and Rick, and they were curious about my probing techniques. I told them I would be glad to show them how I used the probe the following day. Around five o'clock, on the second day of the hunt, as I was just completing my dig on the two structures, they came over. While many of the other relic hunters had decided to call it a day and were packing up their gear, we decided that it might be a good time to do some probing and see if we couldn't find a hut to start opening on the third and last day of the hunt.

"We probed in one area, but the initial results were not very good. We decided to check back in the area where I had found my first huts. Plunging my probe to nearly its complete five-foot extent, I noticed a small amount of charcoal sticking to the tip. I called to Kevin and Rick and told them that I thought we definitely had a structure beneath where I was standing. I really don't think they believed me because their detectors failed to pick up any deep iron signals in the area. I continued probing, bringing up more charcoal and ash each time I pulled the probe from the ground.

"We decided to open up a three by four foot area and sink a test hole," related Andy, "but as we broke ground and dug deeper, the detectors still could not pick up any signs of metal. This continued until we reached a depth of about three feet. It was only at that depth that the detectors started singing out, telling us that we were standing just above a number of metal targets. Long past sunset we recovered the first bullet and decided to mark the site with a water bottle to show that the hole was a "work in progress". We all knew that there would be plenty of digging to do the following day, and that a good night's rest would be in order."

The following morning, Andy probed to find the extent of the area to be dug, and found it to be about 10' long and 7' wide. As their digging progressed, they found a telephone line running through a portion of the excavation and were forced to leave a bridge of soil supporting the line. This effectively cut their deep hut in half. While Andy and Rick worked on one side of the bridge, Kevin searched and dug on the other side.

Hitting an area of very hard-packed clay, Kevin ran his detector over it and got a strong signal on one side of the hole. Tunneling through the clay, he uncovered a barrel hoop and some pieces of broken glass from the Civil War period. A short time afterward, Kevin pulled a leather percussion cap box from the depths!

"It came out of the ground in perfect condition," recalled Andy, who was digging beside him at the time. "I took the cap box and brought it to the truck, where I wrapped it in a wet paper towel and wet newspaper, and then placed it in a ziplock bag.

"We opened the hole some more and ran a detector over the clay. We were surprised to find that we were getting readings all along the entire bottom of the pit. As we scraped away the floor, all sorts of relics from the past began to emerge... bullets, buttons, mess cups, cooking tins, two umbrella inkwells, a champagne bottle, and a wide variety of small relics."

It was in this relic-bearing layer that Kevin would find two unique relics from the past- a pair of Civil War shoes, or brogans, perfectly preserved. "They were found side by side," said Kevin, "but strangely enough, they are of slightly different design, and two different sizes." From the looks of those "Jefferson bootees," they had seen hard service as the soles were worn through.

Seeing how well the bootees came out following preservation, I asked Kevin about the process he used. "e;Well, the leather was in very good condition after I freeze-dried the pair, but I found that the stitches began to come apart."e; Thanks to a combination of good old American ingenuity, Elmer's glue, a set of C-clamps, and a bunch of rubber bands, the shoes were saved from falling apart.

Asked about the freeze-drying process, Kevin explained that he simply put the shoes in his freezer for a week. "e;I think I probably would have kept them in the freezer longer, but I started hearing some complaints from my wife."e; With those words, all I could do was smile, as I think most relic hunters have found themselves in similar situations. I think my own spousal complaint episodes usually focused on rusty rosehead nails on the kitchen table, a section of charred blockhouse flooring in the dining room, and using some soup bowls to clean recovered musketballs.

Well below a depth of 4', wonderful relics awaited- relics that were certainly beyond the electronic capabilities of a metal detector, but could not escape the perseverance of a small group of tireless and determined relic hunters!

Good digging, guys!

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