Thursday, March 29, 2012

Video from DIV, and the history behind the finds

In my DIV daily blogs, I told you about the experiences I had detecting in Virginia, and showed you some of the relics I recovered there.  In this blog post, I'd like to take a closer look at some of those finds, and put them in the perspective of their use and historical significance.  First, though, I'm happy to share with you the video I put together while on the trip.  I wanted my friends, family, and readers to share in the excitement of the finds as they were made.  I have both the bottle and plate reveals on camera, showing these rare items coming to light for the first time in 150 years.  I do hope you enjoy it.

On June 9th, 1863, some 20,000 soldiers converged near the town of Brandy Station, Virginia.  The ensuing battle was the largest cavalry engagement to ever take place in America.  The Union cavalry launched a surprise raid against the Confederate cavalry encampment of Gen. Jeb Stuart.  Although the attack failed to route the Confederates, and the outcome was not a significant victory for either side, the battle marked one important turning point in the war.  For the first time, the Federal cavalry held their own against the Confederates, who had previously dominated in terms of mounted combat.

The properties we searched included part of the Brandy Station battlefield.  In addition, the area was used as winter camps by both armies during the war.  During the winter of 1863-1864, the Spillman Farm (site of DIV XXI) was home to the 1st Division, United States Cavalry.  It was in the center of this camp that I recovered the sword belt buckle, worn by all enlisted cavalrymen.  It is simply amazing to know that I walked the very hill these men are standing on in the picture.  An enlarged section of the picture is also posted below, clearly showing the eagle sabre belt plates they wore, exactly like the one I recovered form the hillside.  Numerous other cavalry-related items were recovered by other detectorists at the hunt, including bit bosses, rosettes, curb chains, bits, several sabre belt plates and carbine sling buckles, sharps and colt pistol bullets, 1st division hat numbers, a Co. K 1st Division ID tag, and even a bugle found at the bottom of a dug out hut.  Below is a picture of Company K, 1st US Cavalry Division in that camp, not far from where my sabre belt plate was recovered.

The sword belt rig consisted of a leather belt with brass buckle, and a number of brass pieces for hanging the sword while standing and mounted.  CivilWarMall has an excellent image which clearly illustrates the metal parts of the sword belt rig.  Notice the large rivets and snap-swivel at the end of the hanging straps - these are the pieces of the sword belt rig found by Earl K. on the hillside near my Virginia buckle at DIV XIX, which he so graciously gave to me.

For a one-piece infantry belt, a small brass adjuster was attached to the opposite end of the belt from the buckle.  You can see how it was used, and how it was affixed to the belt, in this example from I recovered an infantry belt adjuster at a Union campsite located on the Beauregard Farm (DIV XX), which is also shown in the image below.

I also wanted to post a picture of the Ordnance button I recovered at a Confederate camp site on the Beauregard farm, with a non-dug example from for comparison.  The low-convex three-piece button was originally produced for a Union Ordnance Corp officer, responsible for the logistics of weapons development and procurement.  The design features a flaming bomb over two crossed cannons, both of which bear the letters "US".  This is a pre-war button was produced in the 1830's-40's, and a new design was used for Federal Ordnance Corp buttons in the 1850's-60's.  It was found in a camp which produced several other confederate buttons, including North Carolina seal buttons and at least one Confederate Artillery "block A" button.  The combination of the outdated style of the button as well as the location of the find makes it very likely that this button was re-purposed by the Confederacy for use by an artilleryman.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

DIV Blog Day 7: Back to Saxapahaw!

I apologize for not adding the Day 7 blog yesterday, I was simply exhausted.  We hunted in the rain yesterday morning, and I didn't make any find of note except for one small brass buckle.  But the highlight of the day was when my digging buddy, carpool driver, and friend Josh came over with something to show me.  He held out a carbine sling buckle, plow bent but with both keepers, and asked if I knew what it was.  I sure did!  It's a carbine sling buckle, used on a wide leather belt to attach a cavalryman to his weapon so he could hold the reins.  Josh had found his first Civil War buckle!  They were used by both sides, but based on the construction, it appears that his was made by the Union.  I didn't get a picture of his buckle to show you, but below is a picture of a Union carbine sling buckle I found a while back right here in Saxapahaw.  It was both my first Civil War buckle and the first Civil War relic I had ever found.  Josh hadn't cleaned when I last saw him, so I don't know if it had any maker's mark.  My buckle from Saxapahaw is double stamped.  The first says "E. Gaylord Chicopee Mass.", the buckle maker.  The second stamp reads "T. J. Shepard", the US equipment inspector.  It's hard to get an idea of the size of this buckle from this picture, but it's quite large at about 3.25 x 2 inches.

We celebrated for a bit, and dug some more before the rains hit hard.  We went back for lunch and the relic show (with some AMAZING finds on display) under the HQ tent.  After lunch we were wet (with more rain coming), exhausted from a week of relic hunting, and happy with our respective buckles - so we decided to hit the road early, and come back to Saxapahaw a bit early.  That was nice, as I was starting to miss this little town.  It's good to be home.

Friday, March 23, 2012

DIV Day 6: Union Cavalry Buckle!!!

At the end of yesterday’s post, I commented that I was happy with lead but I really wanted to find some brass today.  Well, I accomplished that in a BIG way!  The day started off well with a few bullets, two grommets, and an eagle coat button.  I struggled to pull a few more bullets out of the big field where I found them yesterday, but then decided to move on to the large Union cavalry camp that I had heard about last night.  There were detectors everywhere, and a few pits open on the hillside.  With the amount of bullets being found in that camp, I knew there had to be a plate in there somewhere, so I headed up the hill and started swinging.

I wasn’t in the camp very long before I got a shallow bullet signal.  I dug down, but the target was still in the hole.  When I saw a line of green brass showing at about 6 inches I started to get excited.  Clearing away a bit more dirt revealed the loop on the side of a belt buckle, and I knew I was in business!

Pulling it out from the clay, I confirmed my suspicion when I saw the Federal eagle of a saber belt plate.  This type of buckle was used on a Union cavalryman’s sword belt.  Around the eagle, a silver laurel wreath would have been soldered on, but is missing on my particular buckle.

Once again I have to thank God for helping me to make such a historic discovery.  Also, I’d like to offer a huge thank you to John, Rose, and the entire DIV committee for their hard work which made this hunt possible.  I’m so excited to have found such an amazing piece of this nation’s history!!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

DIV Blog Day 5: S'more lead

Today was the start of DIV XXI at a different property associated with the Battle of Brandy Station.  WOW, there were some amazing relics unearthed today!!  They included an ID badge, complete pistol, a sword hilt and pommel, buttons from Louisiana Mississippi Texas and many others, a South Carolina belt plate and many more amazing recoveries.  Unfortunately none of those mind-blowing finds were mine, but I'm still happy with the new lead I recovered.  I took far too long finding a "spot", and I really only got into a decent place thanks to fellow digger Vaughn (thanks!).

I was pleased to recover a total of 9 bullets, all of them different!  Several I have never found before, so this made for a successful day of detecting.  From left to right they are: 44 pistol round ball, 44 Colt pistol, 58 round ball, 54 Sharps variant (I think), my first 54 Sharps ringtail, my first 58 Gardner, Williams cleaner type 1, 58 caliber three ring Minie, and an unidentified high-velocity impact bullet.

I'm looking forward to getting out again tomorrow to hopefully add some brass to all this lead, and if I'm really lucky get into another pit to dig.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

DIV Day 4: Detecting Fredericksburg, VA

Today was the "break" day between DIV XX and XXI, so Josh and I took a trip to nearby Fredericksburg.  We toured the battlefield museum, and saw the infamous stone wall at Sunken Rd.  We then met up with one of my friends from college, who graciously invited us to metal detect in her yard directly on the battlefield.  It was a great honor to search such important historical ground, even though it had been disturbed by housing construction in the past.  Unfortunately neither of us found any war relics.  The detecting wasn't totally fruitless, as I recovered this silver Hickok belt buckle.  It measures about 1 inch by 1.5 inches, and is stamped on the back as sterling, or 92.5%, silver.

Afterwards we headed over to the pre-hunt meeting for DIV XXI.  The excitement of detecting a brand new property was electric in the air.  Needless to say, I'm super excited for tomorrow, and I can't wait to see what we can find!!  Wish us luck!!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DIV Blog Day 3: My first Civil War bottle!!

Today we started out detecting a new area near the hunt HQ.  After a great many nails and farm iron, I happened to find a mule shoes, which I took as an omen of good luck.  I placed it in my bag, making sure it would stay "open side" up to hold in my luck.  The very next signal turned out to be an artillery shell fragment!  I'm not sure exactly what shell it's from, and there may not be enough remaining to know.

The following signal was a horseshoe, which I casually tossed into my bag.  The entire rest of the morning did not go as well as I had hoped, without a single period target.  After the hunt-sponsored BBQ, I returned to the field I detected on day two, but not before stopping off to unload some of the iron from my pack.  I quickly discovered my problem - the horseshoe was in my bag upside down.  I righted the horseshoe and started detecting, and before long I had a decent signal.

What I found in the hole was a deep 58 caliber three ring bullet, but something caught my eye.  Black material stood out on the surface of the white bullet, and the bottom of the hole showed a small amount of charcoal.  I thought I might be on to something, and began expanding out the hole to find more charcoal.  As I removed another shovel of dirt, I watched a second three ring bullet roll out.  At this point I was sure I was in a fire pit or hut site.

I called my buddy Josh who was detecting on the next hill over, and he came to help out.  We continued to expand the hole, following the black charcoal material to excavate the pit.  There wasn't much in it, but plenty for our first pit dig, including some broken glass and animal bone.  Josh ended up pulling out three more bullets, while I had five (all 58's).  Josh was taking his turn expanding the side with a hand digger when he said "Hey, if we find a bottle, you're digging it."  No sooner had he said it then he started to see glass emerge from the side of the hole.

I hopped in to the hole and carefully worked around to free the bottle from the clay and rocks which surrounded it.  Josh took video, but I'll have to post that later.  It turned out to be a complete medicine bottle with no breaks.  It is a completely surreal experience digging out that pit, and I hope to be able to do more in the future.  But now it's time to rest up, because while the bottle was an excellent ending to DIV XX, the next hunt (XXI) starts on Thursday for three more days of digging!

Monday, March 19, 2012

DIV Blog Day 2: more lead and brass

Today was Day 2 of DIV XX, held at Beauregard Farm in Culpeper, VA.  I had a good day yesterday, but wasn't able to find a "spot" where relics were concentrated (and shallow enough for a VLF detector) where I could slow down.  We parked at a different part of the farm today, and I simply turned on my detector and started walking.  My first find was another 69 caliber minie ball.  It always amazes me just how heavy these things are.  From there I searched the area a bit longer, and just when I was about to move on I found a round musket ball.  As it turns out, I had found my "spot", and spent the entire rest of the day working between two hills.

In addition to a dozen dropped bullets, I found a few other interesting relics, some of which were new for me.  The button was a thrill to find, and is actually my first Union eagle button.  The fields don't tend to treat buttons well here, so I'm very happy to have found this one intact.  As far as lead, I found a flattened out three ring minie ball, and the biggest piece of camp lead I've ever dug.  The highlight for today was digging a brass belt adjuster with a gorgeous green patina (shown at the top of the picture above).

I haven't yet decided if I'm going to the same place tomorrow, or if I'll look for a new spot.  But for now, I know I'm getting some much needed rest.  Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

DIV Blog Day 1: Bullets and a great button!

Hey everyone!  I'm sore, I'm tired, and it's only been the first day!  But I'm having a blast, and made a few cool finds.  My first find of the day came after only about 20 minutes of searching - my very first 69 caliber three ring bullet.  These things are massive!!  It's a huge piece of lead, and truly terrifying to think about as a weapon.

I took a break during the course of the day to watch several latrine pits being dug out.  I saw two complete bottles saved, both of which are simply beautiful.  I ended up with 7 bullets for the day, including two 69's, two 58's, two Sharps bullets, and one 44 Colt pistol bullet.

There was an hour and a half to go in the day when I ran into a friend of mine who invited me to a spot where he was digging quite a few bullets in a Confederate camp.  I was really hoping for a few more to close out the day, but I ended up with a much better find.  I could see the green rim of a button, and carefully moved the dirt to reveal a Federal ordinance officer's coat button.  Produced in the 1830's-40's, it was most likely re-purposed by the Confederacy for an artillery officer based on where it was found.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Diggin' in Virginia Blog: Day 0

Hey everyone!  Today Josh and I made the trip up to Culpeper, Virginia for the spring Diggin' in Virginina group hunts.  We'll be here for the next 7 days, detecting a total of three Civil War sites and at least two separate battlefields.  The drive itself was uneventful, except for seeing a truck (quite unintentionally) while driving on the highway belonging to several of our friends from the Triangle Relic Recovery club from Raleigh.

After checking into the hotel, we went over to the pre-hunt meeting and show.  Several vendors were present, including Minelab with a reprise of their popular GPX detector seminar.  We were given maps of the hunt site for the first three days, the Beauregard Farm at the Battle of Brandy Station.  I'll have more to say about the battle itself later, but I simply don't have energy at the moment.

The highlight of the pre-hunt meeting, though, came shortly after I walked through the door.  We often hear DIV referred to as a "family", more than a disparate group of relic hunters, but friends who take care of their own.  This was proven to me once again when I was approached by one the DIV committee members, Earl K.  He introduced himself, and told me that he had been hunting the same hill at Hansborough Ridge (DIV XIX) where I had found my Virginia state seal tongue buckle.  The buckle had come from an officer's sword belt, and Earl had recovered two pieces of sword belt hardware from the same location.  He presented them to me, with no expectation of anything in return, to be reunited with the buckle upon returning home to North Carolina.  Earl is a stand-up guy, and an excellent example of what relic hunting and Diggin' in Virginia stands for.  Thank you so much, Earl!!

Now it's time to my gear packed up for tomorrow and try and get some sleep.  I know Josh and I are both geared up for a long day of Civil War relic hunting!!  I'll update the blog again tomorrow and let you know how we did!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Getting Ready for DIV XX and XXI

I do apologize for the lack of updates recently.  Life has gotten in the way of both detecting and blogging, and you do need to set priorities somewhere.  In any case, I've been back to the construction site once for about an hour (while I happened to be in the area) and rescued one more Williams cleaner bullet and one more three-ring minie ball.

I've been working hard to get everything in order for the next few weeks, because Detecting Saxapahaw is going back to Diggin' in Virginia!  The DIV event is a conference for relic hunters and a group hunt of known Civil War battlefields and camps near Culpeper, Virginia.  We'll have three days at the Battle of Brandy Station, one break day, and another three days of detecting at a site which currently remains a mystery.  On the break day, I'll be going to visit a friend of mine who happens to own property on the Fredericksburg battlefield, so I'll be able to do a bit of searching there too.  That's seven full days of Civil War relic hunting, the weather report looks promising (knock on wood), and I'm excited to get out there and recover some history!

You can expect daily updates over the next week as I blog about the trip and (hopefully!) some cool finds.  I leave for Virginia first thing tomorrow... I suppose I better think about packing!  Until next time, thanks for reading, and God bless!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Detecting "Reality" Shows and the Amateur/Professional Debate

Detecting "Reality" Shows and the Amateur/Professional Debate

It seems the detecting forums and the archeological communities are in a tizzy about a pair of detecting-themed “reality” shows hitting the airwaves this year.  The first of these, entitled “Diggers”, premiered yesterday on National Geographic as a two-episode pilot trial.  The second is a full 13 episode season called “American Digger”, set to air on Spike TV and starring former professional wrestler and long-time relic hunter Ric Savage.

As much as I hate to give publicity to the debate and potentially fuel the fire, I believe it is my responsibility as a detectorist, relic hunter, and blogger to provide my opinions on the controversy to my readership.  Let me first begin by saying that most of the opinions I have seen (from amateur detectorists, relic hunters, professional archeologists, and my own) are not particularly fond of the idea of these shows.  I should also mention that I don’t have cable television, so I will be commenting on hearsay from the premier episodes of Diggers and press releases of American Digger, but I will try to focus less on specifics of these shows than on the basic premise and potential problems they present.

It would seem the majority of the debate revolves around relic hunting, and not other hobby detecting pursuits such as jewelry hunting and coinshooting.  I have yet to hear many arguments against either of these aspects of detecting, though they have been lumped in with the arguments against relic hunting in many cases.  I will limit this discussion to relic hunting in particular.

This US belt buckle from the Civil War shows extensive plow damage.  It was recovered from a field where troop movement is highly documented and recorded, but where archeological excavation would not  be logical.  Without relic hunters, it would have been destroyed in that field where it lay.

Part One:  The Skewed Reality of Detecting "Reality" Shows

There are two fundamental parts to the argument against shows like these and their portrayal of the relic hunting community.  The first is a depiction of relic hunting solely as a means of financial gain, a concept which neither professionals nor amateurs agree with.  Now don’t get me wrong, metal detecting is one of the few hobbies that can pay for its own equipment in the long run.  A man at my detecting club recently purchased Big Dawg search coil for his detector, and on his second trip the unique geometry of the coil allowed him to find a gold ring which paid for the coil.  If I were to sell my Civil War relics, I would certainly be able to pay for my equipment and then some (though I have been fortunate enough to make a few lucky finds which contribute the bulk of the worth of my collection).  Those who are in it for the money tend to be jewelry hunters, searching modern schools, parks, and beaches, not historical areas. 

But this hobby is far from profitable as a career path.  Only a very few will ever find enough to cover the cost of their equipment, batteries, fuel, and most of all the incredible amount of time required to be successful.  For each post I make showing Civil War relics I have gone out at least as many times on full day detecting trips and found nothing whatsoever.  Contrary to what these shows depict, the overwhelming majority of relic hunters I have ever met don’t do it for monetary reasons, and those who do would be quite disappointed at the typical results.  No, we relic hunters do it for the same love of history and preservation of artifacts that motivates professional archeologists.

The reality of relic hunting - far more trash than treasure. 
I personally dug everything that you see in this picture

Shows like Diggers and American Digger have been crafted in the same way as other successful profit-based shows like Storage Wars and American Pickers.  But in doing so, they completely misrepresent both the intentions of most relic hunters as well as the potential for profit.  Reports from the premier of Diggers show incredibly inflated values of recovered objects, and as I said, it is extremely difficult to make any money as a relic hunting hobbyist.  Sadly, this irresponsible depiction may attract new detectorists with the wrong motivations for relic hunting, delusions of quick wealth, and little training.  While I doubt that such types will stick with the hobby once they learn the reality of how difficult it actually is, I worry about the damage they may cause to our hobby in the meantime if they don’t practice ethical detecting.

Part Two:  The Impossible Idealism of the "Professionals-Only" Argument

The second argument against these shows illustrates the divide between traditional archeology and amateur enthusiasts, and is the most common argument that I have seen from those who are neither professionals nor hobby diggers.  The argument claims that relic hunting damages the integrity of historic sites, and such recoveries should only be performed by professional archeologists in every circumstance.  It isn’t simply against these shows, but the very act of relic hunting.  Those on the extreme of this viewpoint call us looters, thieves of history, and even graverobbers.  This argument is unfortunately, in large part, misinformed and counterproductive to the stated goal of preservation of our history.  Allow me to explain, but first, a caveat.

I do believe that not all sites should be available to relic hunting.  The most basic example is undisturbed pre-historic sites.  Since there is no written record of these human activities, the only information that we can gather is through painstaking archeological excavation, and this should be left to the professionals.  Furthermore, some locations in modern history are simply too engrained in our social fabric to be left to the amateurs, or are generally considered “hallowed ground” that should remain untouched by all.  Sites like Gettysburg and Monticello spring to mind.  But rather than focusing on banning metal detecting at all sites, professional archeologists need to work to preserve these sites of specific cultural importance (many of which have been purchased by the government for preservation).  I see nothing wrong with this approach whatsoever.

The argument of destruction of American cultural heritage falls apart, however, when applied to most sites which are searched by amateur relic hunters.  There aren’t enough professional archeologists, time, or money in the entire United States budget to conduct a full archeological excavation at all of this nations modern-historical sites.  Even if there were, very little new evidence would be gained by such an endeavor.  The lifestyles of 18th and 19th century America are well documented.  Civil War troop locations were well recorded (that’s how I’m able to find these sites in the first place!), and typical camp life is well understood.

The Freeman House (now Roxy Farms Antiques) in Saxapahaw, which I detected several times in 2011, was built in the late 1800's.  There are simply far too many historical sites like this one for archeologists to survey them all, and very little new information would be gained by doing so.

I often hear how important it is to examine the “strata”, or layering of depth of artifacts at a site.  But typical Civil War camp sites are often found in farmed fields, routinely plowed to depths of up to three FEET.  Strata, in such a circumstance, are meaningless.  Furthermore, we know the years and in many cases weeks or even specific days when these relics were lost thanks to the historical record.  Again, very little additional information can be obtained by a professional versus an amateur historian, even if we had unlimited resources for such professional excavations.

The idea of leaving these relics in the ground for professional recovery would be disastrous for the preservation of these items.  Many volumes of relic identification guides have been written by relic hunters based on their recoveries.  To leave these relics in the ground would be to allow them to decay to nothing, and as another relic hunter put it so eloquently, this would be nothing short of “looting by neglect.”  There is nothing more saddening to a relic hunter than excavating a Civil War era button and watching it crumble away to nothing (quite literally) upon recovery thanks to years of plow damage and heavy fertilizer use.  Contrary to popular belief, these relics won’t be around forever until an archeologist has the time and money to recover them.  They will continue to succumb to oxidation, chemical damage, physical damage from plows and bulldozers, and burial under asphalt and concrete until nothing remains.  All in the name of “preservation” from amateur relic hunters who would recover, restore, preserve, and cherish the history of these items without the luxury of a PhD and a government grant.  Pardon me if I sound a bit frustrated by that notion.

 These bullets were recovered from a construction site ready for development.  The bullets with blue circles show damage from bulldozers.  The bullet in the red circle was found on top of the ground illustrating the disturbed strata of the site.

Part 3:  The Benefits of Compromise

I mean this with no disrespect for traditional archeologists.  In fact, I believe detectorists, with all their passion for the preservation of history, are a great untapped resource for the archeological community.  I have even worked side by side with professionals from the North Carolina Office of State Archeology conducting a detector survey of the Battle of Alamance.  Together with the Old North State Detectorists club, we donated many hundreds of man hours at no cost to the state, surveying the battlefield, recording finds locations, and recovering relics for preservation.  Many of our finds are currently on display at the battlefield museum, including a rare USA button, the first and only physical evidence of a second skirmish reported to have occurred at the site later during the Revolutionary War.  The site was not a good candidate for traditional excavation (doing so would have cost much more time and money than the state could provide), and without our help that fragile pewter button would have crumbled away to nothing underground.  I have to note, however, that archeologists will never be able to tap into the potential assistance from detectorists if the rhetoric of looters and graverobbers continues.

This is me holding a musket ball from the Battle of Alamance, recovered while working with the North Carolina Office of State Archeology.

I invite the reader to peruse my site once more, and realize that many of the relics shown here would have been lost forever without amateur relic hunters like myself.  Many of the bullets presented here were recovered from a site already cleared and graded for development, soon to be covered over in asphalt.  The US buckle I recovered is nearly destroyed by constant plow damage, and would not have survived much longer in that farmed field.  The private properties where I have recovered relics with landowner permission right here in Saxapahaw would never be considered as candidates for professional archeological excavation.

This South Carolina state seal button was recovered at the Battle of Bentonville, NC.  The back is corroded and almost destroyed, while the front is barely recognizable.  The field has been plowed and turned for many years, and it common knowledge to historians that South Carolina troops were on the road where it was recovered.  There are currently no scheduled plans for archeological digs in the Bentonville area to my knowledge.  Without relic hunters, artifacts like these will be destroyed by time and the elements.

Relic hunters are not stealing history, but are showing our enthusiasm for it by preserving artifacts which would otherwise be lost.  Unfortunately, shows like “Diggers” misrepresent our goals and inflate the idea of relic hunting for profit, and do us all a disservice.  Please, do not fall into the trap of Hollywood hype, but go talk to some relic hunters for yourself.  I do believe you will find the vast majority to be as passionate and motivated about preserving history as any professional.

Sorry for the rant.  But like I said, we’re a passionate lot.

UPDATE:  I have had several requests to reprint this article.  I am offering it up under creative commons license, and you are free to repost or reprint this article in whole or in part provided you credit me as the author.