Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why You Should Use a GPS to Record Your Metal Detecting Finds

Most relic hunters take pride in the fact that, by recovering relics from the ground, they are preserving the items and their history for posterity.  But in most cases this actually isn't true.  Each time you discover an artifact and put it in your finds bag, you destroy forever its context for future generations.  Displaying relics in Riker cases on your kitchen shelf or even posting your amazing finds on a blog or Youtube for all the world to admire doesn't really do much to preserve their provenance.

Provenance simply means historical context and it's the most important quality of any artifact.  For example, let's say you have two .58 caliber minie balls.  All you know about one was that it was found "in Virginia."  But the other bullet you know was recovered from the Gettysburg Battlefield.  Which one is more valuable?  Obviously, the one from Gettysburg which is of course why there are so many counterfeit relics or relics found somewhere else but  passed off as Gettysburg finds.

So you have your Gettysburg bullet and you know it was found by a farmer in 1912.  

As you hold this historical object in your hand and contemplate its past, don't you yearn to know more?  

What if you could say with absolute certainty, for example, that the bullet was found right here:

That's The Angle at Gettysburg and the scene of Pickett's Charge.  A bullet found in that location would be associated with one of the most poignant tragedies of the Civil War.  Recording its precise longitude and latitude for posterity would preserve its history and make it unique from every other .58 calibre minie ball on the planet.  That information is its provenance and even though you (hopefully) aren't finding bullets on Gettysburg National Park, you can still imbue each and every relic you find with its own unique provenance thereby increasing its value.

Before I go further let me clarify what I mean by "value."  I'm not talking about how much money that relic is worth or what a collector would pay for it, I'm talking about historical value.  Sometimes the two things are synonymous, but often they aren't.  I personally am not concerned about the monetary value of something I find since I will never sell my relics.  To me, their value comes from their historical significance alone.  Reading the Official Records, soldier's letters, and regimental histories, finding where the events they wrote about occurred, and being able to locate a tangible remnant of that past is what I most enjoy about relic hunting--it's a way to "touch the past."  And that's why I personally want to preserve as much provenance as I can about everything I find.  The irony is that, for collector types and those who don't care so much about historical value, provenance also greatly increases the monetary value of artifacts.   The bottom line is that, for a variety of reasons, every relic hunter today should log their finds with a handheld GPS.

GPS Technology
Today, the availability and low cost of handheld GPS units makes it possible for anyone with a metal detector to record for posterity the precise location of individual relics.  Most dedicated units are accurate to less than 10 meters and newer Garmin units increase accuracy to less than three meters on average.  The technology behind this capability was originally developed for military use but today GPS is ubiquitous and supported by practically all smart phones.  That being the case, one obvious question is, why pay money for a dedicated GPS unit when you already have a phone?

There are two problems with using your smartphone as a positioning device.  The first is that phones don't ship with map data.  So unless you have a connection to the Internet (via wifi, 3G, or 4G), or buy and download maps separately, the phone can't indicate where you are.  This can be an issue especially if you're hunting in rural areas.  Dedicated GPS units by comparison come with map data already installed onto the device.

But even if you download map data onto your phone, it's not going to be as accurate as a dedicated GPS unit because of something called "Assisted GPS."  Smartphone AGPS uses radio and wifi data in addition to or instead of satellite data derived from all 24 satellites in the GPS network.  AGPS is much faster than an actual GPS coordinate calculation but it's inherently less precise and you can't turn it on or off.  
Some folks at Skidmore University recently tested the accuracy of their smartphones against dedicated GPS units.  Their results mirror my own personal experience that, while your smartphone is great for finding the nearest Starbucks, you cannot rely on it to accurately record relic locations.  Sometimes it works, but other times thanks to AGPS, it can be significantly inaccurate.  I've witnessed errors as great as 40 yards which again, wouldn't really impact your walking or driving directions downtown, but it can make a profound difference in finding your way back to the precise spot where a relic was found in the field or in establishing meaningful relationships between individual relics at a site.

For reliably and accurately logging your finds, you're going to need to invest in a dedicated GPS device.

So let's say you now have a handheld GPS unit, how do you go about using it?  I'll go through the process using my Garmin Dakota 20 as an example.  The basic principles will apply to any device.

First, you need to make sure your GPS is easily accessible.  If you have to reach into an inner pocket or extract it from a pouch every time you use it, you're going to get tired of it and eventually you'll stop logging finds.  You want to make it as easy as possible to quickly record information, fill your hole, and move on to the next target.

For that reason, I recommend wearing the device around your neck using a lanyard and tucking it into a front pocket.  That way, you're not going to leave the device on the ground and forget it, it's not going to be swinging around like crazy when you're digging or detecting, and it's protected from impact with your digging tool, detector, etc.  For the Garmin Dakota series, you can also buy a protective neoprene case and I recommend it as a great way to protect your investment.

So you're wearing your GPS on your lanyard and you dig a nice 3 ringer minie ball.  Once you verify the target ID, pull out the GPS and, in the case of the Garmin, simply click "Mark Waypoint."  That drops a virtual breadcrumb at the precise spot where you are standing.

Next, you need to give the bullet a unique identifier so you can distinguish between it and anything else you find at this site on this particular or subsequent hunts.  You don't want to have to type out the full description of finds in the field since that would take too long.  Here's a way to streamline the process.

I recommend you purchase a clear plastic fishing lure box such as the one below.  Then, with an indelible pen or label maker, label each compartment with a number starting with 1 and increasing to the number of compartments in your box.

Now, when you find a target, simply enter it in your GPS as "3R1" for 3 ringer bullet 1 of the day, for example, and put the bullet into the compartment with the corresponding number.  For other standard relics, use similar abbreviations e.g., jhk for "j-hook," gdr for "Gardner bullet," etc.  The purpose of this system is to avoid having to type out everything in the field but to clearly identify every relic as it comes out of the ground.

This may sound a bit tedious as opposed to just putting everything in your pocket but this process is essential to preserving the exact provenance of every target.  The payoff will come when you go home, sit down at your computer, and download the data from your device into your mapping software.

The Payoff
Once you have your desktop software up and running and connect your GPS to your computer via USB cable, you simply transfer all of your waypoints from the GPS to your computer.  You'll get something like this.

A couple of things are worth pointing out from this actual plot of two hunts.  First, notice the concentration of bullets and accoutrements to the North.  That obviously is a line of encampment.  Knowing that enables you to make future visits to this site more efficient.  It also tells you where else you might want to look relative to this grouping.  And it raises questions: Were there additional regiments in the area?  How far apart might they have been situated?  If you find and chart one of those then you have yet more information that could lead to more promising areas to detect and a better understanding of what to look for at future sites.

Now note the items associated with artillery and their distribution pattern.  From this, it's possible to construct theories about the location of and possible targets for cannon in this location.  That, in turn, can direct you where to search for fired artillery rounds and artifacts associated with the opposing force as well.

Another benefit of having this data on your computer is that now you can revisit a site and re-live your finds any time you want from the comfort of your own desk -- even after you've "hunted it out."

By using a handheld GPS to log your finds, not only will you preserve the provenance and increase the value of every one of your relics, but you'll also gain insights that will increase the productivity of future hunts.

Equipment Recommendations
One of the reasons I chose the Garmin unit was its excellent mapping software, Basecamp.  It supports Windows PCs as well as Macintosh and both versions are pretty much equivalent in terms of functionality and user interface.  If you want to check it out, you can download it for free.

To download the Windows version click here.
To download the Macintosh version click here.

Garmin also sells two products that significantly increase the functionality of Basecamp.  First are their TOPO series maps that include 1:24,000 scale USGS maps.  These are a bit pricey, running $130 for each region, but the detail is nice to have.

The second thing they sell is "Birdseye Imagery."  This is high resolution satellite imagery available by subscription that you can overlay on top of topographic maps on both the device as well as your PC.  Again, it's nice to have but by no means necessary.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Diggin' In Virginia XXII

Diggin' In Virginia, as readers of this blog know, is a twice annual invitational relic-hunting event in Northern Virginia, organized by John and Rose Kendrick.  I was fortunate to once again be invited to attend Diggin' In Virginia this Fall --here's a summary of the event and my finds.

Back to Beauregard
This year, DIV returned once more to the Beauregard Farm in Brandy Station, Virginia.  For anyone interested in the Civil War, just being able to walk on this incredible property is a treat.  The Battle of Brandy Station, the largest Cavalry engagement in the Western Hemisphere, was fought on a large portion of the farm.  Fleetwood Hill, described by Clark "Bud" Hall as "the most marched upon, camped upon, fought upon, fought over piece of real estate in American History," is partially within its boundaries.  And in the Winter of 1863, large portions of the Union Army, including the 6th Corps under General Meade, were encamped here.  The land is all largely unchanged since that time so it's pretty much heaven for any Civil War buff.
Approximate area of DIV XXII shown in red circle
The weather during the drive to Virginia was overcast and Ihad concerns about the unpredictable and decidedly un-Southern temperatures I'd encountered on previous trips to Culpeper in late October/early November.  As it turned out, the fears were unfounded and participants enjoyed three days of absolutely perfect weather.

DIV has always started with a pre-hunt meeting.  It's a time to sit down and enjoy a meal with old friends,   visit the displays by companies such as North South Trader, American Digger Magazine, Predator Tools, and Don Dodson's North Georgia Detectors, and then learn details of the site, rules, directions, etc.  This year, I almost immediately ran into Frank and Ted, two Culpeper locals who I met during my first DIV.  Shortly afterwards, I saw Dan Frezza and Beau Ouimette and I also had the pleasure of meeting another Carolina-based Civil War historian and relic-hunter, Glenn.  All in all, it's fantastic to get to talk in person with a bunch of Civil War aficionados at the pre-hunt meeting.

I always have a difficult time sleeping the night before the first day of DIV.  I like to spend the weeks before the hunt reading about the area where we'll be hunting in order to have a full appreciation of where I am and what I'm looking at.  This year was no exception and I'd worked myself into such a feverish pitch of anticipation reading Eric Wittenberg's "Battle of Brandy Station" that I couldn't sleep.  I finally gave up and got out of bed at 3:45AM and went downstairs to the lobby of the hotel.  Mercifully, the hotel staff were in the act of setting up for breakfast and I was able to pour myself a nice, hot cup of coffee.  This was soon afterward followed up by multiple pancakes and I was ready to go.
This machine saved my life
Day 1
Imagine 400 guys in camouflage standing in the pre-dawn light with shovels and metal detectors over their shoulders.  That's the scene on the morning of the first day of DIV.  John Kendrick stood up in front of everyone, gave a few last minute directions, wished us luck, and with that DIV XXII officially commenced.  Some people immediately started detecting the nearest field while others jumped in their cars to hunt other locations throughout the massive (~ 3000 acres) farm.

Tony, Dwight, Glenn, and I went to a field north of the Barbour house that sloped gradually downward to what today is a lake but which, during the Civil War, was a small stream known as Flat Run.  Soon, we began to find button backs, bullets, and in my case, lots and lots of camp lead.  This field also contained an incredible concentration of buck and ball loads.  These were in vogue during the American Revolutionary War but still saw use in the early days of the Civil War in smoothbore muskets.  The buck and ball load consisted of a .69 caliber ball and two (or more) .32 cal. rounds of buckshot.  Those tiny .32 cal buckshot sound incredibly good to a GPX 4800 even when they're 10" down in the hot Virginia soil and consequently I spent a great deal of my time on day one digging dozens of pieces of buckshot.  Amazingly, at the bottom of this same field another person located over 180 minie balls in a single hole.

A .69 cal. roundball held for the first time since 1863
Day 2
On Day 2, we moved to a different field, one that elements of the 6th Corps had used as a camp during the winter of 1863.  Here, I found a nice general service Eagle button on top of a prominent hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding terrain.  I also recovered several .58 cal minie balls, a sword belt grommet, and knapsack hooks in this strategic location.
The view from Day 2
Later that afternoon, I moved down the hill onto a flat plain where about 50 people had been hunting most of the day.  There were dig holes everywhere but I knew that the density of relics in the area was high and that people seldom go slowly enough to hear the deep targets.  Sure enough, I got a fantastic signal right in the middle of the dig holes that turned out to be another nice Eagle button.

General service Eagle buttons from DIV XXII
Eagle button came out of this hole, surrounded by dig holes.  Go slow!
This was the first of three relics that I found literally in other folk's footsteps.  The two other instances were rather amusing.  First, I found a spot in a cornfield where someone had kicked away corn husks in order to scrutinize a questionable signal.  I passed the coil of my 4800 over the bare spot and got a very distinct bullet sound.  Sure enough, I pulled a 3 ringer from about 8" down.

The last of these incidents was the best.  I was again detecting in an area that had been hunted pretty thoroughly when I got an unmistakably good signal right in the middle of someone else's filled-in dig hole!  I swung over the hole again and there was no question that it was a good target.  So I stuck my shovel into the already-dug hole, lifted out the already loosened soil, and there in the middle of it was a pristine 3-ringer. How someone missed that one after digging the hole I have no idea but I sure appreciate the pre-dig.

In the waning hours of Day 2, I also found two pieces of a rare and unusual Shaler bullet.  This was a single .58 caliber projectile comprised of 3 separate pieces.  The theory was that the sections would separate in flight and cause more damage than a single round but with greater accuracy than the buck and ball load.

Shaler pieces

A complete Shaler bullet
Day 3
Day 3 dawned and Tony and I returned to the field we'd hunted on the first day.  Scouring its perimeter, we picked up a few good targets including a few dropped Sharps carbine bullets.

Sharps bullets
Moving in the direction of the Barbour House, the number of signals increased and I found a J-Hook with a beautiful green patina less than 8" deep.  Then, I found a massive .69 caliber minie ball.  And another.  Then a button back, and a .69 caliber round ball.  I motioned for Tony who I've nicknamed "Turbo," and who was already 50 yards past the site, to come back and hunker down.  He did and for the next couple of hours we recovered 8 or 9 of these huge bullets apiece.
Massive .69 cal minie ball next to a standard .58 cal
During the last three hours of the hunt, we moved to yet another field.  This one was absolutely littered with iron signals and was obviously the site of a large encampment.  Detecting here was extremely tedious however due to the sheer quantity of small iron signals.  I was rather pleased when I finally dug a signal and it turned out to be bullet as opposed to yet another nail.
Can you spot the 3 ringer?
We had 40 minutes left before DIV XXII officially ended when my radio squawked and Tony excitedly told me to "get over here."  Tony had dug some camp lead and noticed that it was colored by ash.  He widened the hole and saw more ashes, a clear indication that he had discovered a fire pit or even a hut.  He invited me to help and we both started digging as carefully as we could.

We started finding fragments of glass from a brandy bottle.  Then pieces of china plate.  And finally, oyster shells by the dozen, some musket parts, beef bones, and more glass.  The clock was ticking and we were digging like rabid hedgehogs to see if any intact bottles remained.  Finally, with the sun setting and a large hole to fill, we had to stop digging, shovel the earth back into the crater we'd created, and hike back to where Dwight, our fellow relic-hunter and driver, was waiting for us.

What Tony had just found was a spot where Union infantry, probably from Massachusetts, had feasted on beef, brandy, beer, and oysters from Chesapeake Bay during the winter of 1863.  They'd even eaten off fine china.  It was mind boggling luxury for such a remote area and at a time when Lee's army was fortunate to have shoes and rarely if ever enjoyed coffee.  It spoke powerfully of the advantages of production and supply enjoyed by the Union Army.

As Tony and I hiked up the hill towards Barbour house, from which General Lee watched the Battle of Brandy Station unfold, I realized that the guys who ate the oysters 150 years ago whose shells we now carried in our backpacks gazed upon that exact same structure.  And for a moment, I was transported back in time.

DIV XXII finds including oyster dinner from 1863.  Those yanks sure knew how to wage war.
To read more about Diggin' In Virginia and see the incredible finds made by others at DIV XXII, go to MyTreasureSpot.  Thanks to John and Rose and all the DIV volunteer staff for yet another amazing DIV.  Thanks also to +Kellyco Detectors for providing water to all DIV attendees again this year.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Forgotten Campgrounds

In the last days of the last week of the Civil War, there was a camp on the outskirts of Raleigh used at various times by all three wings of Sherman's massive, invading army of 90,000 Federal soldiers.

This particular encampment was on high, rolling ground, overlooking a picturesque farm that featured a beautiful water source, and was bordered by key roadways that allowed easy passage to and from the newly captured city of Raleigh and Hillsboro, to the west, where Johnston's army (including Wade Hampton) had fled.

Weeks after Johnston surrendered, the troops left. Farm animals returned to pasture, grazing amidst discarded materials -- supply cases, broken down tents, dropped minie balls.  Over the next several decades, trees grew and fell, and countless discarded items from those days of strife disappeared beneath leaves, straw, and mud.  The veterans on both sides of the conflict passed away and before long, the camp was forgotten, its only memorial consisting of mention in the Official Records and a vague notation on period maps.  Time passed ...

Today, the site where tens of thousands of soldiers lived in April 1865 is an office park.  The ancient trees, silent witness to such fantastic events of the past, are gone.  The rolling hills have been graded and reshaped by bulldozers, the lake drained.  Driving by, you would never imagine that the bland office buildings, parking lots, and warehouses were once home to the full might of the largest military organization in the world circa 1865.

In a site so thoroughly developed, it's practically impossible to gain a visual sense of its past.  However, the troops who were here did leave their mark, it's just hidden below the surface.

With landowner permission, I was able to metal detect the "Forgotten Campgrounds" several times over the summer of 2012.  I approached the site with great skepticism, but gradually started finding a bullet here, a piece of camp lead there.  And before long, standard .58 caliber three ringers with a thick brown patina began to emerge in quantity.  I'd find them in the craziest places.  One concentrated area, just a few feet from a modern road and freshly laid sidewalk, yielded over 24 bullets.  This section of the site was comprised of fill dirt.  It had been pushed or dumped in this location from another area of the site but it was full of Civil War bullets.

Eventually, we found a tiny patch of original land, an island from the past in the middle of all the asphalt and glass.  It had some hardwood trees growing on it but was mainly covered by dense, secondary-growth pine.  The ground was covered with several inches of pine straw but still visible were the plow furrows from forty years ago when the region was last farmed.

In this vestigial grove, we found bullets, camp lead, carved lead, knapsack grommets and, occasionally, something that hinted at the full martial glory of the past.

Camp lead, cleaner base, bullets, misc brass, found at the "Forgotten Campgrounds"
.58 caliber "3 ringer" bullets
Camp pencil fashioned from bullet lead
Eagle "I" Button from the "Forgotten Camp"
Everything was 9-14" deep and there were thousands of iron nails from an abundance of discarded supply crates.  It was hard work just to find a good signal.  

After a few weeks, I had saved what I could.  I put my equipment in the back of the truck and looked out over the office park, trying to envision all of those soldiers, horses, wagons, and tents crammed into this area as far as the eye could see.  

I'm  grateful to have been able to rescue what I did.  But who knows what the bulldozers have buried forever?  

This post is gratefully dedicated to Dan Frezza for his profound knowledge, enthusiasm, and generous support.


Monday, December 3, 2012


After a long hiatus away from blogging, I'm finally back!  Lots of updates coming over the course of the next week or so including a summary of Digging in Virginia 22 and accounts of several hunts here in the Raleigh/Durham area.

Suffice to say, being a parent to two children under the age of three can seriously cut into your detecting time.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Research and Persistence Finally Pay Off!

In March and April of 1865, some 90,000 Federal troops moved west on Raleigh following the defeat of General Joseph A. Johnston's army at Bentonville.  Their objectives were to capture the North Carolina capital and destroy Johnston's Confederate forces for good.  After Governor Vance's surrender of Raleigh, the Federal Army, with Kilpatrick's cavalry in the vanguard, pursued the fleeing remnants of the once mighty Army of Tennessee.  Ultimately, in the wake of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Johnston negotiated surrender terms for the approximately 80,000 troops under his command at the Bennett farm near Durham's Station.

After several efforts to pin down one of several specific campsite used by this invading Federal force my friend, Tony Stevenson from Detecting Saxapahaw, and I finally located one.

The area we've focused our efforts on is very inhospitable terrain, overgrown by extremely dense scrub pine and briars.  In some spots, it can take up to 10 minutes just  to travel 30 yards.  This was our third trip to this particular location which, over the course of our recent expeditions, has claimed a boot, an ear cuff from Tony's headphones, his digging tool, and the upper arm cuff on my E-TRAC.  Thankfully, our persistence paid off and, after repeatedly coming home empty handed, scarred, and with slightly depleted blood levels, we finally discovered an area untouched since the days in 1865 when North Carolina was invaded by the largest, most well-equipped army on earth.

On this occasion, as we made our way back into the woods where we had permission to detect, a slow drizzle began to fall.  We spread apart and started hunting along the banks of a river that served as a water source for the troops while encamped in the region.  The density of the trees, briars, and saplings made for difficult detecting but we finally reached a site where Tony had dug some bullets and a large cent on a previous visit.

Armed with the knowledge that there had been troops in this exact location and determined not to go home empty-handed again, we started to search in earnest.  Against the backdrop of rain pattering on leaves, the only other sound was threshold tone from our metal detectors and the soft bubbling of the nearby stream.  And within a few minutes, at the base of a large American Beech, I got a good signal and proceeded to dig.  There were so many roots, branches, and saplings in my way that it took probably 3 minutes to recover the target which, sure enough, turned out to be a .58 caliber three ringer.
At last!  After researching this site for so long, I finally held in my hand proof positive that we were in the right spot.  I snapped the above photo and looked around to savor the moment and study the terrain.  Looking out over the damp forest with a river wending its way a short distance below, I imagined the scene as it would have been when the bullet I'd just recovered was dropped.  The experience was overpowering and unlike any other relic hunt I'd enjoyed to date.   Here was a spot that I had found based on my own research and here, the terrain was untouched by humanity for 150 years.  It was easy to imagine the troops arrayed on this wooded slope on a warm, Carolina afternoon.  Stacking rifles and laying their haversacks, ammo cases, and uniforms on the river bank, they probably bathed in its waters—a respite from the heat and welcome relief from weeks of dusty marches—bullets fell among the leaves and were lost to the world of man until this precise moment.

I called out to Tony and let him know of my find.  He came over to scrutinize it and got the "I'm going to find something now" look in his eye.  He went back to where he'd been detecting and I covered up the hole I just dug, picked up my gear, and resumed the search.  And BANG.  Another signal, 3 feet away.  This one turned out to be a Williams cleaner bullet with intact base.
And now Tony calls out that he's found a Williams cleaner himself, about 20 yards away.  And five minutes later, I dig another cleaner bullet.  Then, in rapid succession and all within an area of 50 square feet, I dig three more three ringers for a total of 6 bullets.  Tony dug the same number.  So within about 45 minutes, we recovered a dozen bullets in this one, concentrated spot.

Until this hunt, I'd never recovered so many bullets in such a small area.  And I'd never recovered them in situ as these were.  No plow had scattered them, they lay as they fell.  Another interesting aspect of this hunt was that Tony and I had been in this exact spot before!  He had found a few bullets and a large cent, but we'd written it off as an isolated drop.  We were mistaken and it's worth noting how important it is to not get sloppy in your detecting methods, there's no telling what you'll miss.

By the time we'd recovered a dozen bullets, it was time for us to go home.  We still had to traverse the difficult terrain on the way back to the car.  So we reluctantly turned off our machines and commenced the hike back toward civilization and the 21st century.  But rest assured we will have more to report on this site in the near future.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Colt Revolver Trigger Guard

Yesterday I visited one of the areas I'd been researching to see if I could find some Civil War relics.  I ended up hunting in a spot a mile or two down the road from where we'd intended to hunt at the location of what had been an old homestead at the time of the Civil War.
One of the things that made this a particularly exciting area to search was the abundance of old glass and ceramic shards that littered the area.  It was difficult to take a step without seeing broken shards or pieces of brick.
In the midst of this debitage, I got a great audio signal on my E-TRAC.  Due to the amount of iron in the vicinity, I was hunting in two-tone ferrous mode and swinging really slowly.  The high tone really stood out and was solid and repeatable from all directions.
A few yards away, Tony was sitting on the ground eating his lunch.  I said, "Uh oh, I've got a good signal here."  He got up, chewing, and watched me dig a plug.  I turned it over and out popped this:

 It's the solid brass trigger guard assembly of a Colt percussion revolver.

There are many varieties of Colt pistols with the two main variants being the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver in .36 caliber and the Colt Army Model 1860 in .44.  Both "belt pistols" used the same frame and both were single action, black powder, cap and ball pistols.

The serial number on the trigger guard I found is readable on the leading edge of the plate behind the mounting screw as in the one pictured above.

It's probably not apparent from the photo, but the serial number is 85997.  If it's from a model 1851 Navy Revolver, that would put it's manufacture in 1858.  If the trigger guard is from an 1860 Army Revolver, it's year of manufacture is 1863.  If I'm able to definitively identify the model, I'll post an update.  Either way, it's likely that this pistol saw action in the Civil War.

One rather odd thing I noticed when researching this piece was that another dug trigger guard posted on Corinth Civil War Relics has almost the exact same deformation.  Here's the guard as posted on that site ...
I'm wondering if the similarity is evidence of intentional destruction to render the weapon inoperable?  If anyone has any information about this, please drop me a line or comment on the blog.

This apparently very old bottle was a surface find.  The particular house we were hunting was there at least as far back as 1815 and probably for longer than that.  Judging by the color, form, and extreme thickness of this bottle mouth, I'm guessing it's early 19th or late 18th century.
One more neat find at this site was an old Mercury dime.  The date is 1918.  It's not often you hunt a location that was occupied for a century!

1918 Mercury Dime
I'd like to thank the gracious landowner for allowing us to hunt on their historic property.  This one deserves another visit soon so stay tuned.  For an overview of the design and history of these two great cap and ball revolvers, I highly recommend this excellent video by Mike Beliveau.

A scout carrying his "Colt Revolving Belt Pistol" in Brandy Station, VA.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Site Survey Saved by Silver

As I mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I've been spending a lot of time lately doing research on some local Civil War camp sites.  Last week, having identified a likely prospect on the map, I visited it in person to check it out.  My friend Tony Stevenson of Detecting Saxapahaw came along for the adventure.

As it turned out, this was a day from the twilight zone.  We got lost en route, several landowners weren't answering the door, and I'm pretty sure we found the headquarters of a cult.  To top things off, when we were completely famished and decaffeinated, we couldn't locate so much as a vending machine.  When we finally found an old country store and approached the register with arm-fulls of gatorade, pop-tarts, etc., the elderly proprietor informed us that she only accepted cash of which we had exactly none.

In any case, after walking several miles and detecting for very little of that time, we ultimately came up empty-handed at this particular location.  I haven't given up on the site by any means and will update readers on progress down the road.  But after a few hours of hiking and nothing but threshold tone, Tony and I decided to relocate the hunt to one of his sites where he'd previously made some good finds including a US belt plate.

My first find at this new locale for me was this nice flat button ...

I'm unable to discern what the writing says although Tony, with clearly superior detail vision than I possess, offered a translation in the field.  I'll have to follow up with him and will update the blog once I have it.

[UPDATE:  Tony just emailed me this awesome picture that shows what the button says.  Thanks Tony!]
The second find was really a fun one.  I've been hunting primarily with my GPX 4800 lately.  And, as fantastic a machine as it is for finding deep relics, it's really a binary detector in that it can only tell you whether a target is iron or whether it's not.  I should note that that's a limitation of all pulse induction machines and that the GPX has the absolute best iron discrimination available.  But on this particular day, I was using my other Minelab detector, the E-TRAC, which is a VLF machine and which has the ability to provide much more information about the target than any PI machine currently available.

In fact, the E-TRAC provides more details on the nature of a target than any other VLF machine on the market, too.  Rather than utilizing a single integer value to characterize alloys, E-TRAC provides two values—a ferrous number and a conductive number that combined are what Minelab calls Smartfind.™

Without going into too much detail, the FE value is a scale from 1 to 35 and the CO value ranges from 0-50.  The beauty of this system is that, while several targets can possess identical values on one scale, the chances of their sharing both CO and FE values are low.  For example, a square nail and a silver quarter both sound good and might even have the same VDI number (to use White's method of classifying targets).  On an E-TRAC they will share the same CO value, but the FE value will be different, allowing the detectorist to tell the difference between valuable and trash targets.

E-TRAC Screen showing FE and CO values for a target.
That being said, any system of classifying metallic targets is prone to some error given soil conditions, depth, and proximity of adjacent targets.  But shortly after finding the flat button, I got an absolutely rock-solid 12-45 reading.  To any E-TRAC owner, that number means one thing: SILVER DIME.  I dug a large plug, flipped it over, and sure enough, out popped this guy.
Cool, a "Seated Liberty" dime.  Flipping it over, I made out the date of 1891 which you may or may not be able to discern in the regrettably poor quality photo below.

1891 Seated Liberty Obverse
This find was literally the silver lining to an otherwise somewhat exasperating day.  Thanks to Tony for sharing his cool site and for the camaraderie.  I promise we'll locate that camp soon!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Relic Hunter by Howard Crouch

Happy New Year everyone. It's been especially silent here at Silent Remnants lately primarily because I've gone into research mode, using the holidays to immerse myself in North Carolina circa 1865 and locate some promising places to detect.

Happily, I've managed to identify some interesting locations on the map and via on-site surveys and I'll update readers on the results of that groundwork soon.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share some thoughts on one of the books Santa brought me and which I've been thoroughly enjoying over the past few days —it's "Relic Hunter: The Field Account of Civil War Sites, Artifacts, and Hunting" by Howard Crouch.

This book was published in 1978 and relays, through conversational anecdotes, the incredible experiences of die hard relic hunters in Northern Virginia hunting in the 1960's and 70's. It's a fascinating read from several perspectives.

First, some of the individuals hunting in the 60's knew men who had actually spoken with Civil War veterans. Some of the campsites the relic hunters explored were mentioned by their grandfathers who retained memories of tales shared by their own grandfathers. In many cases, relic hunters could walk right into a large camp and see the outline of the huts and the crumbling chimneys, dormant since the troops last used them. It's this sense of time that makes "Relic Hunter" such a fantastic read. When we dig an artifact that's 150 years old, it can sometimes seem like an immense span of time. But it's actually only a few human generations that separate our world of iPhones, satellites, and M1A1 Abrams Tanks from the era of horses, steam, and blackpowder.

The main appeal of "Relic Hunter" is, of course, reading what it was like to be the first person to hunt a Civil War camp or even, in some cases, a battlefield, something that, for detectorists today, is unfathomable.

For example, one hunter discovers a section of the Monocacy battlefield in Maryland that was "full of everything—US box plates, hat ornaments, flat buttons, and one really pretty, big, round hat wreath. Shell fragments and pieces of fuse were all over." Other hunters describe a typical day's hunt as yielding 3 plates.

One of my favorite stories from the book concerned efforts to restore a section of the Chancellorsville battlefield in 1932. William K. Howard was riding his horse through an area he'd passed through several times before, "when [he] just happened to look down and see this saber stuck upright in the ground. It was dark and weathered down to a point where it blended right in with the trees."

Howard returned to the site with a crew and it turned out to be the shallow grave of a cavalryman, quickly interred by his fellow soldiers where he fell, the saber he'd wielded in battle had become the headstone of his grave.
The book is full of stories such as this and replete with black and white photos of box plate after incredibly rare box plate and other incredible relics.

The only downside to "Relic Hunter" (and this is a minor quibble) is the recurring theme that relics, like the world of the 1860's, have disappeared. As Crouch puts it, "The days of the easy pickings on battlefields and large winter camps are all but gone ... Good sites are hard to find...and every piece coming out of the woods is gone from the soil forever. In contrast to game hunting, the digging sport exists on a non-recurring resource and consequently must surely end one day in the not too far distant future."  This is all true, but newcomers to the hobby may find Crouch's comments a tad deflating.

Only a few pages of the book are dedicated to telling the reader "how" to find places to look for relics. There is a single chapter (27) that deals with methods and it contains valuable advice.

But the main appeal of this book is to put yourselves in the shoes of relic hunters who were the first to re-enter the world of the Civil War.  If you're looking for some inspiration to do more research or to get out and hunt, this book will certainly provide that in droves.  Highly recommended.