Two years ago, a California couple found a stash of rare gold coins hidden in a rusty can under a tree while walking their dog. The coins have been valued at more than $10 million.
In 1990, a couple armed with metal detectors found an extremely rare 1652 New England sixpence coin in a Long Island potato field. That coin sold for $431,250 at auction.
In 2012, a New Mexico boy used a metal detector to locate a two-pound meteorite. The meteorite likely would bring thousands of dollars if sold.
Life-changing finds such as these are rare, but amateur treasure hunters can dig up antique bottles or Native American arrowheads from thousands of years ago. They can use metal detectors to uncover lost coins and jewelry, plus interesting artifacts such as military relics from Revolutionary War or Civil War battles. The trick is to search in areas that are typically overlooked.
EIGHT GREAT BEYOND-THE-BEACH SEARCH AREAS
You probably already know that beaches are popular places to use metal detectors. Beachgoers often lose coins, watches and jewelry in the sand, and tides and storms can pull items lost at sea back to land.
If you live near Revolutionary War or Civil War battlefields or encampments, these are obvious hunting grounds, too—so obvious that they might already have been heavily picked over by other treasure hunters.
Warning: Do not treasure hunt on land administered by the National Park Service or other federal agencies—it is illegal to take artifacts and valuables from federal lands. State and local parks sometimes have rules restricting treasure hunting as well, so ask before searching there. And of course, ask property owners for permission before searching private lands.
Among the places worth searching that many treasure hunters overlook…
The strip of land between roads and sidewalks in towns and cities. Coins, jewelry and other items dropped by people walking along sidewalks or taking out their car keys can end up in this soil. If the road is old, there even could be items lost by people riding horses in past centuries.
Example: I found a War of 1812 artillery uniform button in the strip of land between a sidewalk and a street in Queens, New York. Something to do while waiting for the light to change!
Lost and forgotten picnic grounds. If you meet someone who has lived in your area for many decades, ask if he/she recalls where people used to picnic on nice days. (The local historical society or library might be able to direct you to old picnic grounds, too…or they might have old photos, letters, journals or local histories that provide clues that you can use to find these places.) Old picnic sites are wonderful places to search because people sat on the ground and engaged in sporting activities there, both of which often cause small valuables to fall out of pockets and get lost in the soil. Use a metal detector to search near trees or large rocks.
Also: In rural areas, ask old-timers if they recall any off-the-beaten-track spots where local residents drank during prohibition. Old speakeasys can be rich sites. People are particularly likely to drop things when they drink.
Old public parks. Parks that have been in use for decades can be wonderful search sites for the same reasons as picnic grounds. Most parks already have been picked over by other treasure hunters, however, so concentrate your search on sections of parks that other treasure hunters often overlook. These include overgrown areas, which might not have been overgrown in past decades…and the trails into and out of the parks, which tend to be ignored by treasure hunters hurrying to get to the main park grounds.
Example: I found a box of scattered Sharps buffalo gun bullets dating to the 1870s along a path leading into a park in Queens, New York.
In and under old stone walls. People sometimes stash things in stone walls and then never return to retrieve them.
Example: I have found antique silverware. People also find guns hidden in stone walls.
Vacant lots where buildings stood in the distant past. To find these, visit local libraries and historical societies and ask if they have old maps of your area that show building locations. Compare these to present-day maps of the area, such as the satellite maps available on Google Maps (Maps.Google.com).
Near old swimming holes. Swimmers often dropped coins and jewelry when they changed clothes near swimming holes. Search not only around the water’s edge but also in nearby overgrown spots that could potentially have provided cover for changing clothes.
Tip: Riverbanks and lake shorelines are excellent spots to search for Native American artifacts, since that was where they made their camps. These generally are made of stone, not metal, so a metal detector will not find them. Scan visually for exposed pieces of stone that have an unnaturally sharp edge—these could be spear tips, arrowheads or axe heads.
Dried-up bodies of water. When the water level falls in draught-stricken reservoirs, lakes or rivers, search the newly exposed land. You might find items lost by swimmers or boaters…or even old guns discarded by criminals (guns are especially likely in bodies of water near cities).
Example: I found nine rusty old guns, including a 19th-century Colt revolver, in a single day of searching when the water level fell in a dried-up reservoir along the Brooklyn-Queens border in New York. The value of these guns is mostly as curiosities.
Abandoned trash dumps. Some items once discarded as trash now are collectible. For example, antique bottles are a very common abandoned dump find. The best place to find antique bottles is in old trash dumps in wooded areas. Look for old broken glass or clamshells on the ground, and then dig some test pits about three feet deep. Some abandoned dumps appear on old maps, but unofficial, unrecorded dumps tend to be better places to search—they are less likely to have been picked over by earlier treasure hunters. Unofficial dumps are more common than you might imagine in both rural and urban areas. Municipal trash collection was not always available in past centuries, so people sometimes just created their own dumps near where they lived. Do a little digging—it might be a dump, and you might find some unexpected treasures.
JOIN A CLUB
Treasure hunting is not just a great way to combine an interest in local history with the thrill of finding valuables—it can be a fun social activity, too. You might be able to find a club in your area through the website of the Federation of Metal Detector & Archeological Clubs (FMDAC.org). Most clubs offer great camaraderie, and veteran treasure hunters usually are happy to share their knowledge with new members.
You also might want to subscribe to a magazine such as American Digger and Western & Eastern Treasures. These focus on the treasure-hunting successes of people who describe their “how to” adventures.
SELECTING A METAL DETECTOR
A metal detector is a crucial tool for a treasure hunter in search of metal valuables—but which detector to buy? There are dozens of options with prices ranging from less than $50 to more than $1,000.
As a rule of thumb, beginners should spend around $200 to $300 for a relatively basic machine from a major manufacturer. Less expensive machines are likely to be frustrating and unreliable and turn you away from a fascinating hobby. More expensive models provide additional analysis of potential finds, but in-depth analysis really isn’t necessary for a beginner. You can find out exactly what you have located with just a little bit of research.
Good options include the Fisher F2 ($249, FisherLab.com)…Teknetics EurotekPro ($219, TekneticsT2.com)…and White’s Treasuremaster ($299.95, WhitesElectronics.com). To learn more about each machine, you can read metal detector reviews on TreasureNet.com or just put the name of the machine you are considering in a search engine.