I've often thought of myself as just an "older student" when it came to relic hunting and history, and I think that's probably due to the fact that there is so much to learn. With every hunt we go on, another mystery is revealed to us... another secret we need to unravel... another puzzle piece that must be fitted into place. I think that must be part of the fascination about relic hunting, the simple fact that you never know just what is going to be revealed with that next shovelful of soil.
This is especially true when you shift in time and place and begin exploring an entirely new period from the one to which you've grown accustomed. For the last quarter-century, my love of the French & Indian War and the American Revolution had been enough to sustain my interest. I never had any passion for searching sites dating from an era nearer to our own.
Situations change, however, and with growing restrictions, sites being closed down, existing sites being hammered to give up that last button or bullet, and a growing sense of ruthless competition among relic hunters here in the Northeast, I found my passions for history and the entire relic hunting experience slowly and steadily beginning to diminish. Believe me, it was not a good feeling!
It took an invitation to Virginia a couple of years ago and the search of a Civil War encampment to bring back the passion. Truthfully, I had never given the Civil War much thought, and I know that simple statement borders on heresy in some relic hunting circles. It was simply the fact that upstate New York was never noted for much Civil War activity. Sure, we had a few fields where troops mustered, a few open stretches of land where the local militias would drill, but that was just about the extent of the activity.
I didn't know what to expect on my first visit south, and certainly didn't expect to be learning an entirely new facet of relic hunting. I didn't think for a second that the fires would be rekindled... never thought I would be looking forward to seeing an old bottle coming out of a hole... thought my days of digging old clay pipes from the ground were long over. It's amazing how life, and your outlook, can suddenly change!
On our first trip to Virginia, we didn't really begin understanding the idea of "hut digging" until the final hours of the hunt. We would have to wait another 18 months before we would break ground in Virginia again, and put some of the things we had learned into practice.
Arriving a day early in Virginia gave us an additional day of relic hunting. We hadn't even checked into our room at the motel before we were detecting across an open field in search of our first hut site. It was one of my luckiest days of relic hunting, as I hadn't gone more than a couple of dozen yards from the truck when I got my first strong signal. Within a couple of minutes I was able to accomplish several things in quick order: open the ground, slice open my thumb on a shard of broken glass, repair the damaged hand with a couple of bandages, and return to my digging wearing a pair of leather gloves.
I pinpointed the first target and was both surprised and overjoyed when a partial Eagle breastplate was pulled from the depths of the hole. It was in pretty poor shape, but at least the eagle was intact. It was the first one I'd ever dug, and I couldn't have anticipated the excitement I felt after I did a quick field cleaning!
I checked the hole again and continued to get signals. The plate was followed by a .69 caliber round ball, which was soon followed by a .58 caliber Minie. That was it! Broken glass, breast plate, projectiles. I called to my buddy, Charlie, and said, "Let's open it up!"
It wasn't long before we had a hole big enough to stand in and a growing pile of soil beside it. Charlie initially had the task of checking the removed soil with his metal detector as I dug in an attempt to follow the discolored ash layer in the walls of the hole.
It seemed as if barely a minute would go by before Charlie's detector would sound off again on a bullet or a piece of buckshot. There was a lot of excitement in the air as we stopped to examine each recovery, and if you didn't know better, you'd have thought it was the first time we'd ever relic hunted.
Seeing us opening the hole from across the field, Ed and George Simmers came over to offer us some much-needed advice on hut digging techniques. Their tips and directions were readily heeded.
Pointing out an area where the soil was discolored by rust, Ed told me to slow down a bit and use a small digging tool to carefully remove the soil from the wall. As I did, another round ball rolled out of the soil.
"Might be a cartridge tin," Ed commented, "and there should be three pieces of buckshot behind where the ball came from."
Sure enough, three more pieces of buckshot were revealed with the next small pile of soil. There wasn't much left of the tinned iron box, but there sure were a lot of round balls and buckshot in that small area.
I slowed the digging even further when I noticed a greenish tint in the area from which we had pulled a handful of .69 caliber balls. I was surprised to see a small pile of percussion caps fall into the bottom of the hole after I probed the area with the tip of my digging tool. The pile of relics the hut site was yielding began to steadily grow!
Once we hit the hard-packed floor of the hut, we worked to find the corners and follow the walls. As we were doing so, a couple of pipe stems and fragments of two white clay pipe bowls were found. We were able to recover a red clay pipe bowl and partial stem, but at the time we didn't examine it too carefully. It wasn't until we were back in New York and the red clay bowl was sitting on my workbench that I noticed a series of interesting scratches running around its surface. I cleaned the remaining Virginia soil from the bowl and was surprised and intrigued by what I found. The solider who had occupied the hut had carved a crude tobacco leaf into the surface of the bowl with his pocketknife!
One of the goals I had set for myself for that weekend was the recovery of a glass umbrella inkwell. That's what I was looking for when I heard Charlie calling, "Pick up the inkwell!" and saw him pointing at the hut floor. I thought that he must be seeing something I couldn't see, because of the life of me, I couldn't find any sign of glass. Finally, with Charlie pointing at a spot directly in front of my boots, I was able to spot the inkwell. It was a brown, ceramic piece and had blended in with the surrounding soil perfectly. I couldn't help but wonder about the words that nameless soldier must have written to loved ones so far away, with the contents of that little inkwell.
With waning sunlight on a late March afternoon, we came away from the hut site with lessons learned, and prepared for the main dig that would begin the following morning. As we wearily trudged across the field and back toward the trucks, I remember Ed Simmers saying to me, "I didn't think there'd be a single undug hut on that entire field. How did you manage to find it?"
The words of an old expression seemed to be the only ones that were apt and fitting in light of such lucky circumstances...
"Even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while!"