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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (04/2003) Relic Hunter (03/2003) Relic Hunter (05/2003)   Vol. 37 April 2003 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the April 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine

Of Old Dogs And New Tricks

By: Ed Fedory

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks!"

...or can you?

I knew from the outset that this was going to be a love affair that would never end. I sat beside the small hole I had just dug and looked at the piece of silver in my hand. It was slightly blackened by the periodic flooding of the field I was in, but still sparkled to raise my pulse.

I had been working the site of the King George's era fort for a couple of weeks, and while I had found quite a number and variety of relics, this particular one just had me stunned. It was my first piece of Colonial silver, and it was love at first sight.

I took a short break after that initial recovery and examined the coin. It was a one real dated 1740, and I could easily see that it had been lost without having been in circulation for a long period of time. The pillars and banners stood out clearly, as did the boldness of the date and crown. Since then, I have found quite a number of early Colonial silver coins, some bigger, some in amazingly better condition, but that first one was a benchmark of sorts, and will always hold a special place in my memories.

It was a phrase which would run through my mind a hundred times during the course of that October weekend in Virginia. The surrounding countryside looked very familiar, similar to upstate New York, but without the mountains, and a heck of a lot more cars- but this Yankee knew for certain, as soon as he opened his mouth and listened with both ears, that he was a little out of his element.

I guess I might have been considered a little naïve when it came to relic hunting "Southern style." I don't think it was too obvious in the very beginning, but as the first day wore on, I knew that there was going to be a lot more to relic hunting that weekend than just swinging a coil over the surface of the ground and digging handfuls of Minie balls!

Prior to the trip we were told to bring large digging tools, and that certain areas in which we would be hunting contained highly mineralized soil... and every so often the terms "digging huts" and "hut diggin'" were mentioned. I will admit I was pretty clueless... heck, the only "hut" I knew anything about sold pizzas!

My education in Virginia relic hunting techniques was about to begin. I didn't need to lose any of my Northern/Revolutionary War relic hunting techniques, but I sure had to put a lot of it aside; that, and open my mind to a new type of searching. I found myself constantly having to adapt to a different way of looking at the past... a different way of viewing and "reading" the ground.

Today, we are constantly bombarded with phrases about "thinking outside the box." Personally, I never gave it much thought- few of us who have passed that half-century mark do. We're kind of set in our ways, and the rut we dug so long ago has grown pretty comfortable... but from what I witnessed, if you don't plan on making some major changes in your thinking and digging, you're going to wind up with a very sore back and an empty collecting bag!

I guess you could say that my first day in the field was the day of the big lesson. The temperature was hitting around the 90° mark, and the humidity was probably a little higher. You'd drink a bottle of cold water, and five minutes later your shirt would be wringing wet. It was one of those windless days where you can feel the heat baking your head and rising from the soil at the same time... real relic hunting weather!

Any of the targets I dug that first day were deep... very deep. There were very few surface indicators to give evidence that we were walking over what had once been a Union Army encampment.

It was mid-afternoon when Charlie Ashby and I decided that we'd had just about enough of searching the open fields and decided to head into the tangle of brush and the shade. It seemed that quite a number of other people had the same idea.

Other than the shade, the searching conditions remained about the same- very deep targets, to which was added a veil of spider webs that I was continually dragging off my face. I knew I was doing something wrong, and I knew that the ground had to contain a lot more than the dismal collection of relics rolling around in the bottom of my pouch.

Occasionally, I would pass another relic hunter, and we'd chat for a second before continuing with our search. One fellow mentioned that someone had recovered a Virginia staff button a few minutes earlier. Another relic hunter told a story of a $10 gold piece having been recovered from a hut site. The finds they related were nice ones, no doubt, but there was that word again... huts. I quickly realized that rather than aimlessly roam the woods, picking up the infrequent target, I desperately needed to gather some sorely needed information about this hut thing!

The classroom in which my lessons were to be taught was pretty easy to find. A fellow was standing knee deep in a large excavation, and surrounding him was a group of about 20 onlookers. Every detector was turned off except for the Shadow X-5 being used to pinpoint targets in the hole, as each spectator waited breathlessly for the next relic to come from the depths of the soil.

The man doing the digging looked very familiar, and so did the woman who was holding his recovered relics. Then their names hit me like a bolt from the blue... Mark Swann was doing the digging, and his wife, Reba, was holding the recoveries. I had worked with Mark and Reba on several earlier relic hunting stories, and I knew in a second that if I was going to learn anything about digging Civil War era huts, this would be the place to start!

Viewing the finds Mark and Reba made that day was enough to make any relic hunter green with envy... an 1852 $10 gold piece... an eagle breastplate... a Union officer's sword belt plate... and the Virginia button. Those were just the big finds. There were many other recoveries I would have been glad to have had lining the inside of my collecting bag, coming from the bottom and sides of that hut site.

I saw my hunting partner, Charlie Ashby, on the other side of the hole- another ardent student seeking information- and when our eyes locked, we both knew what we were going to be doing the second day of the hunt. I will admit that it took a bit of persuasion to get Charlie to go along with the idea of "hut diggin'," but we both knew that we had to adapt to the situation before us. It was just a simple case of, "When in Rome..." Well, you know the rest.

That evening back in the hotel, with Charlie already warming to the idea of tomorrow's digging, we were fortunate enough to run into Ed and George Simmers, a pair of veteran hut diggers. We listened intently as they told of hunts they had shared and huts they had dug... of finds they had made, and of techniques they had used. We plied them with questions, some of which probably sounded pretty fundamental (insert stupid, if you prefer), but they realized we were new to this aspect of relic hunting, and wanted to help us. I learned more about digging huts in those several hours than I could have learned through studying any text on the subject. The lessons were continued the following day in the field, as Charlie and I watched Ed and George digging bottles from another hut site.

Digging a hut site is one thing, but finding the site of a former hut is quite another story. As we watched Ed and George, it seemed that detected iron indicators and a fair amount of reading the land, not to mention some sort of magical intuitive sense, was at work during the process of locating a site for Charlie and me to dig. I guess that's got to be the real definition of "Southern hospitality"... when a couple of Virginia relic hunters will help a couple of New York relic hunters locate a good site. Either that, or we all knew, for sure, that The War was over. I think we were only called Yankees a couple of dozen times, or so!

"Not every hut holds a vast amount of relics" was another lesson we had been taught the previous evening, and our first hut site would live up to those words. We were able to pull a couple of Minie balls and a knapsack hook from part of the first hut, but on our way to the floor of the hut we encountered roots as thick as my arm. I guess that is to be expected when a 75' tree decides to grow over a former hut.

Through the brush we heard a call from our buddy, Clay Soliday. Clay had flown across country from Washington State to join in the hunt. Clay suggested that since we only had a few hours left in the hunt, we should combine our efforts on the hut he was digging, as he would never be able to complete the search by himself in the time remaining. We happily accepted his invitation, and within the first 15 minutes, we had established a system of digging. Clay would break up the walls of the hole with his smaller shovel, I would haul the soil out of the hole with the larger shovel, and Charlie would check the soil for artifacts with his metal detector. It was a system that economized our efforts and worked beautifully!

By the time the horn blew, indicating the end of the hunt, we had recovered several eagle buttons, Minie balls, primer caps, a Chinese cash coin, and a number of other interesting artifacts from the site of the Union encampment. As we closed up our dig, we wondered what we were leaving behind for future hunters. I knew that for the three of us, filling in that hole was one of the hardest things we ever had to do. We had only scratched the surface of what could have been found. How many inches away had been that gunlock... or that bayonet... or that "US" belt plate?

Since our return to New York, Charlie and I have had a couple of invitations to return to Virginia to continue our education in the field of hut digging. Those invitations were something to which we had to give some serious consideration...

...for all of about five seconds! Author's note: Both Charlie and I would like to extend our best regards and sincerest thanks to the fine men and women of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunting Association for our invitation to the Legends of Relic Hunting weekend. A more hospitable or historically knowledgeable group of dedicated relic hunters and preservationists would be very difficult to find!

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