Hobbyists sound out the history underfoot

By Charles Hoskinson
August 25, 2005

Bob Buttafuso, a member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association, displays a Civil War era Colt pistol.

Bob Buttafuso, a member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association,
displays a Civil War era Colt pistol.  Allison Shelley (THE WASHINGTON TIMES)


    "The industry is growing. There's a lot of interest in metal detection," says Aaron Cook, spokesman for Garrett Metal Detectors of Garland, Texas, one of the leading manufacturers of equipment used by hobbyists.
    The hobby also has fueled a worldwide market in relics, sometimes making it a target for archaeologists and preservationists who say metal-detector enthusiasts are stealing history.
    Many of the known historical sites in the Washington area are off-limits to metal detecting. Parks and monuments, for example, discourage the practice because it could disturb the archaeological record and open important historical sites to plundering and exploitation.
    Many private owners also refuse to allow metal detecting on their property -- mainly, Mr. Culter says, because of legal liability issues and because previous detectorists have abused their property.
    Liability is a particular issue with developers, he says, but they sometimes also are concerned that relic hunters might find something of archaeological significance that could hold up a construction project.
    "The most difficult part of this hobby is finding places to hunt," he says.
    Mr. Culter, vice president and director of business operations of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental trust, has been relic hunting for 15 years. He carries with him a pocket-size notebook in which he records the date and location of each hunt, along with a list of what he found.
    On this day in Culpeper County, Mr. Culter is on his 258th hunt. As on his other hunts, he has found mostly cannon fragments and musket balls, including a .54-caliber bullet from a Sharps breechloading carbine, a favorite cavalry weapon.
    The site he and his fellow club members are probing is 60 miles southwest of Washington. Mr. Jenkins chose it because of its proximity to the Rappahannock and to a historic rail line.
    A search of Civil War records indicates Confederate troops camped in the area in late August 1862 before the Battle of Second Manassas and engaged in fierce skirmishes and artillery duels with Union troops posted across the Rappahannock. Union troops attacked across the river in the same area on Nov. 7, 1863.
    The four men, decked out in T-shirts, loose-fitting pants and hats to ward off the searing summer sun, fan out across the field.
    "You just put the machine down, and you go," Mr. Reid says. "The best way to find relics is to go out and do it."
    As Mr. Reid is digging up his cannonball fragment, Mr. Jenkins finds a button from a Confederate soldier's uniform bearing the palmetto-tree symbol of the state of South Carolina. It's a lucky find -- a button like that could fetch $250 on the relic market -- and he found it in the same spot where, on an earlier hunt, he found a Mississippi state uniform button that was equally as rare and valuable.
    "It's a lot easier to deal with the heat and frustration if you're finding stuff," Mr. Reid says as Mr. Jenkins proudly displays his latest find.
    "That's the thrill you get from it, and that's the addiction. Because you never know what's out here."
    They even keep the trash they dig up to throw away later so they don't have to deal with it on a future hunting trip.
    "You don't want to dig trash twice," Mr. Reid says.
    A good metal detector can cost $200 to more than $1,000. The best can locate buried coins, jewelry and relics as deep as 18 inches underground and even tell the user what kind of metal has been found.
    Membership in a club isn't required, but it helps. NVRHA members work together to research and find sites to hunt and to seek permission from landowners -- not an easy task, they say.
    "It's so easy to say no. You figure, what's in it for them?" says Mr. Chafin, an electrician from Annandale.
    Mr. Culter, who lives in Falls Church, adds that development in the Washington area is forcing metal-detector enthusiasts to seek places to hunt farther and farther away from home.
    "There were a lot of places to hunt in Fairfax County, but most of those places have been destroyed," he says. "Nothing is more frustrating to a relic hunter than to lose a site. All that stuff is permanently destroyed."
    Mr. Chafin says metal detectorists keep a close eye on where construction crews are clearing land for development and even have been known to follow dump trucks filled with topsoil from promising sites so they can search through it at the dump site.
    "That's the key to the whole game," Mr. Chafin says. "We live in the best place for digging."
    Adds Mr. Culter: "But we're 20 years too late."
    "The hobby itself is a dying hobby, I think. In another 30 years it's going to be ... near impossible to find someplace to go."
    Mr. Culter says detectorists see themselves as preservationists, because they are recovering relics that otherwise would be destroyed or rendered unrecoverable by development. He says most of the sites they hunt are never visited by archaeologists.
    Bob Sutton, superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, suggests that on non-park property ripe for the bulldozer, detectorists' work can in fact help recover history.
    "It's better than doing nothing," he says.
    Mr. Sutton says archaeologists at the 5,073-acre park, site of two major Civil War battles, found a way to co-exist with the hobby and preserve history as well. Members of the NVRHA have been invited to help National Park Service archaeologists survey areas of the park for relics before major construction and renovation projects.
    "I think it's really beneficial for both," Mr. Sutton says. "They're very good. When they come out and work with our people, they become very knowledgeable about the scientific methods of doing archaeology."
    Mr. Culter says his group also works with communities such as Haymarket and Warrenton, helping recover relics at construction sites so they can be preserved for future display instead of being lost forever.
    It's the few renegades who spoil the image of metal detectorists, he says.
    The "renegades" include people who abuse private property by trespassing on or damaging it, thus making the sites off-limits to future hunts. They also include those who violate the law and remove artifacts from known archaeological or protected historical sites.
    Conscientious detectorists disdain such rule breakers. Bylaws of the NVRHA and other metal-detecting clubs bar members from hunting uninvited on private property or on public land closed to the practice and from disturbing active archaeological sites.
    Yet there is some concern among archaeologists that all detectorists are "stealing history" by removing artifacts without a proper scientific study.
    This feeling has eased somewhat in recent years, as in the program at Manassas National Battlefield Park, where the professionals and hobbyists work together. Mr. Culter says the NVRHA has worked hard with the archaeological community to find common ground, with some success -- as at Warrenton and Haymarket.
    Still, illegal relic hunting is a major problem at the Manassas park, Mr. Sutton says. Much of the problem stems from people ignorant of the law, but park rangers also have arrested professional relic hunters seeking items to sell for profit, he says.
    It's a violation of federal law to hunt for relics in any national park, monument or battlefield. Penalties include stiff fines, confiscation and even jail time. Those who do it are likely to get caught, Mr. Sutton says.
    "We're very, very vigilant around the park," he says.