Monday, December 14, 2015

DIV XXXII Part II - Once in a Lifetime Paper Cartridge Recovery!

I last left you in suspense with one final dig of my DIV wrapup from Cole's Hill remaining.  It was just before lunch on the final day.  I had already had an amazing weekend of finds and friends, but I was still looking for that one special centerpiece.  I was continuing to find deep bullets in the swale at the base of Hansbrough Ridge, when one of those deep signals kept on going down and down.  At the bottom of the hole I finally found my first target - a Sharps bullet.  But I knew there had to be more than just the one bullet based on the signal on the detector, so I checked the hole to reveal another beautiful low tone.

I used the pinpointer to locate the next target, another Sharps.  When I pulled the bullet from the hole, I noticed something remarkable.  Still in the ground was the original paper cartridge!  I was able to carefully excavate the cartridge and powder charge to reassemble with the bullet.  I was still getting more signals, and one by one I slowly removed more complete paper Sharps cartridges from the earth.

Besides the first bullet, which was not complete, I recovered nine more bullets with the paper cartridge and gunpowder and six percussion caps.  Sharps cartridges were generally sold in boxes of ten, so it is highly likely that this was a discarded full box of ammunition.

So how did the paper cartridges remain intact for more than a century and a half underground?  As it turns out, these were no ordinary cartridges.  Civil War small arms used a number of different designs for cartridge construction, the majority of which included a paper wrapped bullet and powder charge.  The technology of war was rapidly advancing, however, leading to a number of new experimental "patent" cartridges by makers like Hazard, Sage, Barthalow, Potter, and Johnston and Dow.

Many of these patent cartridges were made of highly combustable nitrated paper or linen.  They were designed to load more efficiently and burn cleaner.  In addition, a nitrated collodion coating provided a certain amount of waterproofing versus a traditional paper cartridge.  Despite favorable reviews, these experimental cartridges never fully caught on with the ordinance department.

The waterproof cartridges, plus the extreme depth of the hole they were found in and the Virginia clay helped preserve these complete cartridges intact.  These waterproof patent cartridges do occasionally turn up in trash pits, huts, and trench lines, but are quite a rare find indeed.  The majority of those recovered are 58 caliber three ring minie balls.  Civil War bullet expert and author Jim Thomas identified my bullets as Johnston and Dow patent cartridges for the Sharps carbine.  Although the Sharps was one of the most commonly used carbines of the War, with over 40 million rounds produced, only a small percentage of those were waterproof patent cartridges.  And of those, a much smaller fraction still were preserved intact without being destroyed by time, the elements, or human farming or development.  Needless to say, this is truly another find of a lifetime.

For me, that's the magical thing about this hobby.  We get to connect with the past in such a tangible way, and make once-in-a-lifetime finds over and over again!  While no two are quite the same, I will cherish these memories forever.  Thanks for reading, happy hunting, and God bless.  Stay tuned for a big news update from Detecting Saxapahaw this Christmas!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

DIV XXXII - Homecoming Hunt at Cole's Hill Part I

I once again returned to Culpeper, VA for the fall invitational Diggin' in Virginia hunt in November.  For me, this particular hunt had a special significance - we were going back to Cole's Hill.  You see, it was in these same fields four years prior that I attended my first DIV event, #19, and I haven't missed one since.  It was in a small field beside Hansbrough ridge that I made my single greatest Civil War recovery, the Virginia belt plate.  It was there in Stevensburg that I truly felt I could count myself a "relic hunter", and focused my efforts on searching for the artifacts of the War between the States.  And it was there - in the hotel, in the carpool, at the pre-hunt meeting, at the barbeque, and among the hills and fields - that I met friends who changed my life.  Many of those same friends would join me now, four years later, for another chance to save some history on Cole's Hill.

My quantity of finds increased pretty dramatically since the last time I hunted here, and I can certainly attribute that to my trusty GPX4800.  Don't get me wrong, I clearly did well with the duct-tape-dfx, but having the right tools to cut through the mineralized red clay made a world of difference.

On the first day we decided to try out the new front fields.  The finds were there, but seemed to be scattered about.  I eventually found myself wandering back to the " old" new field from DIV 19, and found a fair number of Sharps bullets.  While I turned left, most of my friends turned right, and it paid off.  Brian quickly pouched a US box plate, and my friend Phil recovered the holy grail of Relic hunting - a soldier's ID disc!

Day two saw me in the field by the pond, near where the Virginia buckle was found.  I did get into a small patch loaded with bullets, and spent half a day cleaning up a living room sized area of deep lead.  This included several excellent carved and half-melted bullets, which I love to find even more than drops.  They provide such tangible evidence of camp life and the men who were there.  My favorite of these lead pieces is a soldier-made four hole button, carved from lead.  I can just imagine him whittling it down to replace a lost trouser button.

Also in this area, I found my best brass relic from the hunt.  This is the back end of a spur, worn on the heels of the boot to command a horse to move while mounted.  Thanks to the "ID me" relic identification page on Facebook, we found this example of an identical spur from the Mount Vernon collection, listing a production date of 1795-1850.  This would not have been a regulation issue spur, but rather a civilian model that could easily have been purchased by a Confederate or Federal officer or cavalryman.

The second half of day two I traveled to the apex of Cole's Hill.  What a view!  Can you imagine waking up to that every morning?  I also recovered a few minie balls here but failed to find that elusive dug in hut.

On day three I worked a small swale near the old pond, and continued to pull out deep bullets, button backs, a j hook, and four large brass studs.  I noticed that the latter produced a double-hit much like a nail, but with zero blanking.  I wonder what other targets might be missed by skipping those non-blanking double hits.

It was here, just before lunch, that I got a deep bullet signal that lead me to the best find of the hunt, and one I'm not likely to repeat.  But I'm going to leave you in suspense for now (if you didn't already see it on a relic forum).  Check back in for more pictures and a detailed account.  Thanks for reading, happy hunting and God bless!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cavalry Finds Part II: The mystery of the melted brass

I'm back for the second half of this two-part wrap-up of the Federal cavalry camp I detected recently with my good friends Keith and Tracy.  I talked about the bullet finds last time.  Now it's time to get to the my favorite stuff - big, green, Civil War brass artifacts!

I'll start with a brief nod to this cool bayonet scabbard tip, recovered in two pieces nearby one another.  I've talked about them in the past, so I won't spend much time on it, but you can check out an image of a non-dug scabbard in one of my previous entries here.  It should be noted that, because the cavalry soldiers would have been carring sabers, this bayonet tip most likely came from a soldier in a known infantry camp nearby.  I did also find one lonely three ring minie ball close by that also probably came from that nearby infantry.

One of my favorite finds from this camp is an item diggers and collectors often refer to as a batwing (for obvious reasons), although this was not a period term.  This large brass piece is a strap end from a carbine sling, a wide leather belt clipped to a cavalryman's firearm.  The belt prevented the soldier from dropping his rifle when not in use.

The complete carbine sling consisted of the brass strap end, a wide brass sling buckle, and an iron swivel to attach to the rifle.  I searched vigorously for the other parts to no avail.  I do, however, have a Gaylord/Shepard carbine sling buckle in my collection - recovered right here in Saxapahaw!  I found that one before I started this blog, but I posted a picture in a previous entry found here.  Above I have also included images of a non-dug sling, and below a cavalry soldier with the sling parts clearly visible.

Last but not least, I present my deepest recovery in that field.  We could see the characteristic green oxidation patina of brass in the bottom of the hole, but I think we were all surprised by what we saw as it came to light.  Instead of an easily identifiable relic, what emerged from the hole was this odd chunk of brass, heavily melted and distorted in a fire.  So what the heck is it?

I had an idea, but it wasn't until I got home and compared it to a non-melted example that I could confirm my hypothesis.  What you see below is the melted brass relic on top of a sword belt plate I dug back at DIV XXI.  A small part of the border of the plate and a protruding section of the belt loop are all that remain to identify this as about the worst looking Civil War buckle imaginable.

But a Relic is a Relic, and this one provided more questions than answers.  How did it get so heavily destroyed?  Would a War era camp fire burn hot enough to do this kind of damage?  Why was it melted in the first place?  I didn't have the answers, so I contacted an expert - Gary Williams of Hanover Brass foundry.  Few people (if any) know more about Civil War buckles and their construction.  Here is what Mr. Williams had to say:

Tony,  I have dug melted brass items from fire pits. Depends on what they use to build the fire and how long it burns. Yes I  think your buckle was destroyed in a fire pit and they just for some reason left buckles and all the other relics in pits , etc. You dig many relics and wonder why they would just leave it. One big reason was dead soldiers had no use for whatever.  regards GW

So it is clear that what I have is the heavily destroyed remains of a cavalry buckle, most likely melted in a fire in the camp.  As for why it ended up in that state, there are perhaps plenty of theories, some a sobering reminder of the reality of war and the remnants that we uncover so many years later.  This metal mystery, it would seem, will remain unsolved.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cavalry Finds Part I

Welcome back!  So this is the second of my October - November catch-up posts, and the results from two trips out with the Pennsylvania boys.  Based on the finds, it was pretty clear we were in a cavalry camp.  I had a couple of good days, and my total results are pictured below before I talk about a few pieces in more detail.

The bullets are primarily Sharps, Spencer, and Burnside, the three most commonly used carbines during the Civil War, and all associated with cavalry units.  The Sharps carbine used a paper cartridge, and I will have a lot more to say about them in an upcoming blog post.  The Spencer and Burnside bullets used a brass cartridge.  Below is a picture of two Burnsides (top) and two Spencers (bottom) all with remnants of the brass cartridge intact.  The Burnsides are my very first of that type, and I always enjoy finding something I have never recovered before, even if their condition leaves a lot to be desired.

The combination of lead, brass, and gunpowder often leads to the corrosion of the thin brass walls of the cartridge in the ground over time.  This, combined with destruction from farming activity, typically results in only the lead bullet (often corroded at the base) and the round base from the cartridge case being found separately.  Occasionally when the case is separated from the bullet early enough and manages to evade the plow, a solid cartridge case can be found.  I am still looking for my first complete brass cartridge and bullet together (and its pretty high on my wish list!) I was able to create several "reconstructed" Spencer cartridges from bullets and casings found in this field.  Although they are obvious reconstructions, I think they turned out well enough, and portray what the complete cartridge would have looked like when it was dropped in that camp 150 years ago.

The brass wire fragments at the bottom right of the first picture are also associated with the weaponry of war.  These are broken bore brushes or cleaning jags, used to clean the inside of the gun's barrel to prevent fouling.  I have also included an image of a non-dug carbine bore brush from The Horse Soldier, with the bristles and leather strap (for passing through the barrel) intact.

This post has already started to get long winded (as I am wont to do), so I believe I will leave you in suspense about the big brass for now. So stay tuned to Detecting Saxapahaw for another catchup post from the Cavalry camp, and my finds from DIV XXXII!  Until then, happy hunting and God bless!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Silver in Saxapahaw!

Wow, what can I say guys and gals.  It's Relic Season, and I've been hitting it hard.  I've been blessed with a streak of luck lately, so I've got lots of new things to share here on the blog.  Rather than lump them all into one big unmanagble novel of a post, I will more likely break them up into several smaller posts.  But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop digging, either!  So keep checking back for more.

This past weekend I attended DIV 32 at Coles Hill in Stevensburg, Virginia.  I will have much more to say about that in the near future.  The finds were plentiful, including one hole that (in my opinion) turned out top be one of the top finds of my detecting career.

But first, I stopped by a site at home in Saxapahaw on the way out of town for a short pre-hunt to get me excited for some DIV action.  The home town did not disappoint!

I got a couple neat finds, including my first movable type printing letter and one musket ball, along with a lot of trash.  But two finds really stuck out above the rest.  The first is this amazing eagle hood ornament.  The condition is a little rough, but I think it is really cool.  I'm not an expert, but my brief research shows that it was from 1931-1932 model Chevrolet cars. Now that's an old ornament!  The style on it just really speaks to me, and I'm happy to have dug it.  If any readers have more information on that car, I'd love to learn more.

The find of the hunt is smaller than a hood ornament - a LOT smaller.  After plenty of trash targets, I was excited when one of my detectors high tones revealed the unmistakeable silver rim of an old coin in the hole.  I carefully pulled it from its resting place, and instantly realized how tiny this coin was.

What I had discovered was an 1853 seated liberty half dime.  "Now wait" I can hear you saying at home.  "Isn't a half dime a nickel?"

Well, not always!  The nickel five cent piece wasn't introduced until 1865 amid the silver shortages that followed the Civil War.  Prior to that, five cent coins had been made of silver, called a half dime (or earlier, half disme.). These are tiny little coins, literally half the silver content of a dime.  In fact, the half dime is considered by many to be the first official coinage produced by the United States back in 1792.

This seated liberty pattern of half dime was introduced in 1837 and continued until 1873.  For the numismatists reading, this is the 1853 Philadelphia mint with stars and arrows, the most common of the four subtle design changes produced in that year.

Thanks again for checking out my blog, and stay tuned.  I've got a big announcement coming up at the first of the year for an exciting new detecting adventure.  And I'll keep the blog posts coming until then.  Happy Hunting, and God Bless!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Ring Tells Its Story After 132 Years

Every item we find with our metal detectors has a story to tell.  Unfortunately for us, we seldom have an opportunity to hear the whole truth.  We are often left to speculate on the origins of our finds, making educated guesses based on the item itself, its location, and other objects found nearby.  But every once in a detectorists life, we get a more complete view of a particular object.  We often ponder, "If only these pieces of history could talk! What a story they could tell!"  Every so often, it turns out, they actually can.  This is the story of a very unique ring, which I will do my best to tell.

It started out as a fairly slow day searching along Saxapahaw Bethlehem Church Road (on private property with permission, of course).  I had found some items of interest here before, spanning 200 years of history from the area once known as Oaks, NC.  This day I hadn't found anything particularly noteworthy, just a few bits of older brass, and a cool old Regal lock.  I was making my way back towards the road, getting ready to call it quits, when I got a solid low tone hit on my maching.  "BOOO-WOO"!

I flipped the plug, and instantly recognized the shape of a ring on the bottom.  It was a plain golden band, unadorned and classic in style.  I wiped it off, and saw hallmarks present inside, but initially I wasn't even sure if it was solid or plated gold.  It wasn't brass - there was no sign of oxidation, a characteristic of real gold.  Even after a hundred years in the ground, it will come out as shiny as the day it was lost.

I posted several pictures on my personal Facebook account, and several detecting forums asking for opinions on the hallmarks.  The first was the number 18, which I correctly assumed was the purity of gold in karats.  The second mark was a crown, a British pictographic hallmark denoting gold.  I was pleasantly surprised that most commentors not only believed that it was real gold, but that it had a very old look to the hallmarks.  I brought the ring in to see an expert at a jewelry store in Chapel Hill that specializes in antique and estate pieces.  They confirmed what I had already begun to suspect - the ring was genuine, and crafted sometime in the 19th century.

Here's where the story gets really interesting, though, because the ring had a secret that I hadn't shared yet on the forums.  In addition to the hallmarks, the inside of the band was hand inscribed with (albeit fairly crude) cursive letters.  It reads:


"83" very lightly in center.

Having confirmed the 19th century construction, that meant the engraving of 83 meant 1883 - one hundred and thirty two years ago.  Wow!  Now the real digging began, trying to put real individuals together with this object.  It was a time consuming task, but here is what I found.

Top: GWL
Bottom:  MFD

George Whitfield Lasley was born August 13, 1850 to Cynthia Crutchfield and David Lasley of Oaks, Orange County, NC.  Various documents have his name listed as either Lasley or Lashley.  Mary Frances Duke, daughter of Henry and Isabella Duke was born near Greensboro, NC on November 11, 1857.  By 1870, however, her family had relocated to Saxapahaw in Alamance county.

North Carolina marriage register showing George and Mary Lasley

The two would be married July 29, 1884.  They raised at least 6 children, and lived the remainder of their days here in Orange County.  George worked as a carriage maker and farmed the land.  George passed away in 1934 at the age of 83, and his wife followed just two years later.  They are buried in the Bethlehem Church cemetery along the Orange an Alamance county line.

George and Mary Lasley, photo from FindAGrave memorial found here

The ring presented from GWL to MFD in 1883 was likely a symbol of their betrothal to be married, a common practice at the time.  Exactly when and how it came to rest under a cedar tree along the Saxapahaw and Bethlehem Church Road will remain a mystery.  But Mary Frances Duke Lasley's ring can now once again see the light of day, and their story can be told.  If you have any more information or additional photographs of Mary or George Lasley of Oaks, NC, please contact me at

Thank you so much for reading (if you made it this far), happy hunting, and God bless.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Buttons from Saxapahaw, bullets from Virginia

Hey everyone!  I wanted to share some of my September finds with you all.  I got a chance to go up to Virginia and detect with my good friend Dustin not too long ago.  I did pretty well on bullets, but nothing else spectacular.  Dustin had a great hunt, pulling both a rare button (Union eagle R rifleman coat) and his first Spanish silver (1792 two reale).  Way to go man! 

Civil war bullets an button back, 
Early civilian flat button
Dustin's 1792 two reale

More recently, I took the GPX 4800 on a spin around Saxapahaw to try and cut through the harsh mineralization.  I was very happy with its performance as usual, discriminating iron and pulling some nice old brass relics with ease.  These are my finds for just a few hours hunting a spot I had previously given up on with other detectors.

The round ball is hard to date, but has a really nice pronounced sprue.  The flat buttons date to the first half of the 19th century, the earliest timeframe for the site I was hunting.  The two piece BS script button was for the uniform of the nearby Bingham School, although the backmark appears to date its production to just after the Civil War after the school had relocated to Mebansville.

Thanks for looking, happy hunting, and God bless.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My First Spanish Silver!!

Hey everyone!  I recently took a road trip to do some detecting with the “Pennsylvania Boys”, my buddies Keith and Tracy and my new friend Ethan.  It was a beautiful day, although it was blazingly hot in the sun by the end of it.  We all had a great time, and came away with a nice pile of relics.

We were detecting the site looking for Civil War relics, and we all found quite a few.  The bullets were a mixture of dropped and fired rounds, mostly three-ringers and William’s cleaners.  Much to my surprise, a little more than half (11 out of 20) of my three ring bullets had a Washington Arsenal star base stamp.  My favorite is the high-impact Minie ball with the star base clearly visible.  Another interesting first for me is a William’s cleaner type one with quite a bit of the zinc washer still intact.  These typically corrode away with ground action, and finding the zinc remaining is rather uncommon.

One interesting byproduct of hunting for Civil War relics is that the soldiers marched, camped, and fought on the existing infrastructure of the day.  It’s not at all uncommon to find artifacts that predate the Civil War mixed in, sometimes by 100 years or more.  I found five civilian buttons that predate the war.  The heavily corroded button is my first pewter button, which unfortunately lacks any front design.  My favorite button that I found was a highly ornate tombac button with a star motif.  The picture doesn’t do the level of detail any justice.  Ethan also found a great button, a massive pewter button with what I think looks like a nautical motif.

I found the end of a very decorative spur, and I’m not sure about its use or age.  It clearly doesn’t look military issue, but I don’t know enough about them to say if it’s from the Civil War era.  It has the right look about it, though, and war found in the right area.  Any help on that one would be most appreciated!

The find of the hunt for me, though, was this cut Spanish silver pistareen.  This is my first Spanish silver, and my oldest coin to date by a long stretch.  Although the date portion of the coin has been cut off, there is enough present to determine a date range.  We can see most of the word “PHILIPPUS”, referring to Spain’s King Philip V, who ruled from 1700 to 1746.  Foreign silver, especially Spanish silver, dominated the Americas for colonial trade, and all the way into the middle of the 19th century.  The face value on the complete coin would have been 2 Reales, with 8 Reales being equivalent to one dollar.  UPDATE: I received a reply from colonial silver expert Bill D. on a detecting forum, who further narrowed down the mint date of this coin. Because the assayers mark is present k. This piece, the coin was produced in Mexico City between 1733 and 1746.  Thanks for the added information, Bill!

So how did it end up as only a fragment of a coin?  Because the value of the coin was in the silver weight, making change for a purchase was often done by physically dividing the coin into pieces.  The famous pirate “Pieces of Eight” refers to the subdivided pieces of an 8 Reale coin.  In this case, the full 2 Reale coin was divided into four ½ reales (5 cents worth of silver for a pistareen) at some point in order to make change.  With such complicated monetary exchanges, I have no idea how they kept it all straight!  Fortunately that came to an end in 1857 with the passage of the Coinage Act, which forbade the use of foreign silver coins as legal tender.  As it turns out, this wouldn’t be the only Spanish silver for the day – Keith also pulled a cut silver milled pillar reale coin towards the end of the hunt!

Thanks so much for reading, and thank you to Keith, Tracy, and Ethan for a fabulous day of detecting and fellowship.  I had a blast, and I can’t wait to get together again soon!