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.