Digging Spring

 Vol. 10, No. 12

March 21-27, 2002

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Uncovering What Lies Beneath as Warming Weather Reveals Lost Treasures
by Bob Bockting

I stopped hammering and looked up.

“It’s a sieve,” I explained. “Harry and I are going to sift the beach.”

My wife’s expression reflected neither surprise nor full comprehension.

‘Not all of it,” I added, “Just the strip between low and high tide, and only those spots where my new metal detector lets out a squeal. We’re going to recover buckets of loot.”

“That’s nice,” said my wife. “I’m meeting Nancy and Eileen for lunch. Have fun with your toys.”

As her car cleared the drive without mishap, I turned to my project with the measured intensity of an inventor about to develop a substitute for petroleum.

Introductions All Around
So what’s this all about? And who’s Harry?

It’s about metal detectors and treasure hunting.

And why on the beach? Well, the digging is easy and it’s a lot closer than some fabled island haunt of buccaneers or lost mines in the Southwest. It doesn’t require a ship or an expedition — and at the beach there are other diversions.

And Harry? He’s my sister-in-law’s husband. From their condo balcony, they can see hunters on the beach with metal detectors, swinging the search coils in slow arcs, a few inches above the sand. Occasionally, one will stoop and trowel up something. These guys are hoping for a diamond ring, a big gold class ring or a watch. That may not be what they are getting most of the time, but that’s what they’ve got in mind.

Some years ago, at a beach on Chesapeake Bay, professional treasure hunter Bob Travillean of Glen Burnie found a platinum-set diamond of over two carats. That thing was appraised at $13,000! Of course, when a metal detector squawks, it’s usually a pull-tab, a nail or a nickel, but the expectancy and suspense are still there. As for what has been found over the years, the record is just naturally incomplete. Not every successful hunter is going to advertise a valuable find, obviously fearing that the line of claimants might congest the neighborhood.

Where does this stuff come from?

From swimmers mostly. Thousands visit ocean and Bay beaches every weekend and some wear their jewelry. Cool water shrinks fingers and makes them slippery. Things dropped in sand or surf disappear almost instantly, and usually forever, hidden but moved about by the endless sifting of the tides.

Enter the modern metal detector. It can ‘see’ down through the sand for several inches and spot a metal object as small as a thumbtack. The word ‘modern’ is crucial here. Metal detectors have been around a long time, but in the last few years, as in the whole field of electronics, they’ve come a long way and are lighter and easier to use and to adjust. They reach a lot deeper and detect tinier objects.

Playing the Odds
This all leads up to my involvement. I’m a history buff with treasure and Civil War stories high on my reading list. When I saw those guys hunting on the beach, I asked myself, ‘Can I do it? Can anyone? Do people really find valuables with these gadgets?’ I headed for the library for answers. According to the literature, some people find treasure. It takes luck and persistence.

To start with, I didn’t anticipate a systematic approach. What you do, I surmised, is go out and start hunting someplace, most anyplace in Maryland. If accounts of the Civil War and the War of 1812 are true, you have to look a long time before you can find a place where J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry didn’t shoot it out with some Yankee cavalry or someplace along the Chesapeake and its tributaries where the British didn’t come ashore and fight a skirmish or burn a town. The turf of Maryland has got to be just loaded with goodies like swords, muskets and old moldy saddle bags crammed with $20 gold coins. Right?

Well, maybe. Skirmishes took place all over, but not every place. Some folks buried valuables to keep them safe when the rebels or the British were coming, then died or forgot and the stuff may still be there. But you’ve got to do some research and pinpoint a likely place if you want to increase your chances.

By now, it’s apparent that this hobby is not for everybody. Few quit their jobs to devote full time to treasure hunting. Most people remain amateurs. Like devotees of other sports or hobbies, some do it on weekends, some now and then. To others, it’s fun just reading and daydreaming.

Then, there’s my level. I hunt a little and daydream a lot, savoring the idea of finding a treasure and, incidentally, getting rich. Why not just buy a lottery ticket? To me, it’s not the same. I need the challenge. I want to fit the pieces together.

Occasionally, I see the cardiologist who, some years ago, coached me through a heart attack and bypass surgery. According to him, my lifestyle should include outdoor exercise. So frequently, the detector goes along on outings like hiking, bicycling or boating that take me, generally with a friend or friends, out in the country. We may spot an old standing chimney, indicating the site of a former building. That place has to be explored if it’s not fenced off with “No Trespassing” signs. Why? Because kids don’t have a monopoly on curiosity and romantic imagination.

Writer Bob Bockting scans the sand for burried loot.
What Lies Beneath
Superficial mastery of the instrument itself proved easy. I read the instructions. Apart from that aberrant behavior and a demonstration at the shop, my learning process involved interment in my backyard of a collection of keys that no longer fit anything and some practice searching for them with the detector. The neighbors’ tactful reticence prevented their mentioning to me any apprehension they may have harbored for my sanity.

For more than a century, treasure buffs have been intrigued by three legendary hoards: the Lost Dutchman’s Mine, reputedly in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona; the Beale Treasure, supposed to lie buried near the Peaks of Otter in Virginia just off Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail; and a mysterious cache thought to exist on Oak Island in Newfoundland. Quests for these treasures are still going strong, spawning new books and well-financed expeditions all duly reported in the press.

Stories of fabulous treasures make fun reading, but real discoveries seem to come in smaller packages. A searcher who has run onto an account of some deceased person who didn’t trust banks will sometimes dig up a fruit jar full of coins. Chances are these coins will have been minted back in the 1920s or 1930s, when most were made of silver. Finders don’t just stuff these coins in parking meters and telephones. They’ll work, of course, but they are worth a lot more than face value to collectors.

For example, a quarter minted the year I was born, 1923, just a plain old quarter, sells for $8 in “good” condition. If in better condition, it brings more; and if it’s one of the rare “S” mint quarters of that year, it’s worth over 10 times as much. What does that mean? Well, if you were to discover a cigar box full of just the cheap ones, you’d be $10,000 richer.

Back at the Beach
Now, after all that, let’s get back to the beach. And let’s say we are tired of crabbing, swimming and sunning. The ladies in bikinis have departed and our wives aren’t back from shopping. We break out the detector and sifter and look for a likely spot to search, picking a place where receding waves have carved a gully. Heavy stuff, like metal, should have collected here.

As we are about to start, someone approaches and asks for help finding a class ring some family member has just lost. We help. Maybe we find it and are briefly heroes. We hunt a while, taking turns with the scoop and sifter. We find a lot of trash and some change. Last time, Harry and I found 48 cents.

Our wives wave from the balcony. It’s time for cocktails. We quit.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly