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An ID or Bust: The Long Journey to ID a Colonial Coin

Posted by on May 20, 2012
Hibernia copper front

What is it?

Last February, I took advantage of a mild NJ winter and a small window of time to hit my backyard for a little afternoon metal detecting. It was a sunny Friday afternoon and my kids would soon be strolling down the block on their return trip from the school bus. I had searched my yard countless times and it always managed to give back, though the finds were becoming more and more fleeting.

On this particular hunt, nothing of note was pulled from the ground after a while and it was time to pack it in for the day. I proceeded to walk towards my front yard, swinging the coil (at that time, I was using my beginner Bounty Hunter Tracker IV; I have since upgraded to a Garrett AT Pro) along the way. As I neared my driveway, walking over an area I’d searched before (though with less scrutiny and patience than in my backyard), I encountered a mid-tone, repeatable signal no more than four inches from my driveway. My Bounty Hunter did not provide VDI numbers like my AT Pro does, but the discrimination knob was set for picking out coins and the sensitivity was maxed out. Essentially that means I was going strictly on sound and this hit seemed to be worthy of a dig. I figured it was likely scrap metal. I had grown a hatred of those sharp pieces of roof sheathing that one encounters in close proximity to a house! They cut your hands and slice your hopes in the process. At that time I did not yet have a pinpointer, so it made for a long process of dig, get up, swing coil, repeat. One thing’s for sure: This sucker was deep! Finally, at no less than eight inches I retrieved the target, what I thought at the time to be a crusty quarter. I didn’t think much of it, pocketed the coin, and stowed my detector in the garage. It was time to take my daughter to a voice lesson. My hobby would have to be put on the backburner as usual.

Later, I overlaid the coin atop a quarter and was surprised and excited to observe that it was slightly larger than the quarter—could it be my first really old coin? I was relatively new to the metal detecting hobby, but I knew enough to figure it was either an older coin or a token of some sort due to its size (larger than a quarter, smaller than a half dollar). But a copper under my front lawn, which sits in an overdeveloped town of 70,000+? This would require further investigation. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would be the start of a long period of anxious, exhausting analysis and research on my part.

The Journey Begins
With a possible colonial coin in my hand I proceeded to get positively obsessed with acquiring an ID for it. I brought the coin upstairs to my “lab,” essentially a desk with a high-intensity lamp and a magnifier. The first thing I noticed was that, due to a small ding in the rim, it was definitely copper—that unmistakable shiny orange hue was clearly evident. I gently rinsed the coin under water with a little dish soap to see if I could remove some dirt and get a date or at least identify any visible evidence of what it may be. This was to no avail, as it just looked like an old coin masked by a lot of grayish-green patina. I then proceeded to measure the coin in an effort to perhaps eliminate what it wasn’t, and thereby narrow the possibilities of what it was. The coin measured exactly 25 millimeters. I immediately took to the Internet and plugged in terms like “copper coin” and “25 mm” into search field. Way too many possibilities turned up, from ancient Roman coins to more modern-day foreign coins. OK, more work was needed.

Again intently examining both sides for what seemed to be an hour, I could not make out a single definite letter, number, or image on the coin. I thought I saw some letters around the circumference, but they were too faint to know for sure. One side in particular (turned out to be the reverse, read on), was much more toasted than the other. Frustrated, though growing more intent on an ID, I decided to close up shop for the day to once again attend to familial obligations.

An ID or “Bust”
The next day, with eyes fresh from a night’s rest, I undertook another intense examination of the coin. Not long into this second foray, tilting the coin back-forth and up-down to maximize the light vs. shadow ratio, I suddenly thought I saw the faint impression of a right-facing bust. Was I seeing things? Were my eyes fabricating what my heart and mind wanted? I looked again. Yes, if I angled the coin against the light just so, it really did appear to be the profile of a head I was staring at! I called down to my wife to come upstairs—I wanted to show her something. When she arrived at my desk she had a smirk on her face like, “What is it this time?” (Here I was telling a grown woman I wanted to show her something of mine with a magnifying glass—a bit awkward and humiliating—but I was intent on my purpose.) I said, “I think I see a head facing right, do you see it?” She took a look for a few seconds, handed the magnifier and coin back to me, and walking off saying, “I don’t see anything.” Dagger! Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. Spirits deflated, I continued to leer at the coin for longer than I’d like to admit.

Lightbulb! An Idea “Rubs” Me the Right Way
In the days that followed, my wife and kids would shrug their shoulders at the constant sight of a magnifying glass and coin in my hands. I didn’t care; I was determined to get an ID off this thing by hook/crook. Many ideas raced through my head—should I take the coin to a coin shop for an ID? Should I post some pics to a metal detecting forum in hopes someone could see something I couldn’t? Then, it suddenly occurred to me that I could trace the coin’s surface using some thin paper and a sharp pencil. In lieu of tracing paper, I used a sheet from a small white notepad I had. I proceeded to rub a very sharp pencil with moderate pressure over the paper, making sure the pencil point got into every nook and cranny of the coin’s surface. After several attempts per side, resharpening the pencil each time and trying to perfect my technique, I hit pay dirt—a right-facing bust was unmistakably evident! Husband 1, wife 0.

Days of tracings on both sides trying to get a better and better image paid off, as I now had a sizable collection of rubbings, each seemingly containing a new clue as to the coin’s imprint. Though these rubbings offered no new clues on the very toasted reverse side, I could now clearly note details on the bust of the obverse side. The nose seemed to protrude more than average and I could tell that the lips closed simply, i.e., there was no pursing to them. There also appeared to be wavy lines through the hair and some sort of bow just of the back of the neck.

The rubbings led to more Internet searches, adding “right-facing” and “nose” to the previously used variables of “copper coin” and “25 mm.” The list of potential matches was narrowing a bit but because I could not definitively identify any letters (what looked like a “D” in one view, looked like an “R” in another), I was still without a concrete ID. My best guess was a Wood’s Hibernia copper, based on the closest image I could locate that resembled the rubbings. As much as I wanted to believe that, in my heart and mind I needed concrete proof.

The Perox-“hide” Incident
I realized that in order to identify any letters on either side of the coin, I was going to have to take the risk of cleaning it. Now, I know the question of “to clean or not to clean” a dug coin is the subject of wide debate, but there was no debate in my head because I knew I was not interested in the value of the coin; I just desperately wanted an ID.

Trolling through some online treasure forums I learned about a cleaning technique whereby a coin is placed in a bowl of heated peroxide to rid it of surface dirt and wear and expose more of the natural surface. Judging by the many before and after photos of other coins cleaned with this method, I decided to give it a try myself, though with measured reluctance in the face of potentially ruining it and never getting an ID. I heated up the peroxide for a minute in the microwave and nervously placed the coin inside, praying that the resultant bubbling would take me to the promised land. After the bubbling died down noticeably, I extracted the coin, dried it, and took a look. The cleaning had somewhat worked; I could see the lettering more clearly and thought I could make out both an “R” and an “S” among the letters on the circumference. Fresh with renewed excitement, I decided to do another round of heat, soak, and dry. This time the letters seemed to be really showing (I now thought I saw a “U”), though it came with a price: I noticed that the coin was starting to turn brownish in color and becoming more dry or brittle. I was so close but I had a decision to make: Go one more round and possibly make out some more or all of the letters or stop the cleaning process right then and there to ensure I didn’t jeopardize the coin any further than I already had. Well, in short, excitement got the best of me and the next thing I knew I was heating the peroxide up again. To spare the gory details, the last cleaning hurt the ID process much more than it helped. In the end, the image of the bust was in much worse shape than as originally dug and I was no closer to identifying any other letters. I was left very disheartened and regretting the cleaning process altogether, knowing that I may never acquire an ID for the coin. To make matters worse, having taken no pictures of the coin pre-cleaning, getting an expert’s ID at this point was nearly impossible.

Hibernation, Then “Hibernia-nation”
Well, several weeks turned into months, and the coin lay idle in my metal detecting finds’ case. Identifying the coin became an afterthought and when the subject of the coin came up amongst acquaintances, I would just refer to it as a “probable colonial coin, but who knows.”

Then, in early May, while Grant was laying the groundwork for this site, he asked me for pictures of my best finds. I finally took close-up shots of the coin, despite having possession of it for 3 months. While analyzing a zoomed-in picture of the reverse, I thought I could make out a rough image I knew I had seen before on an Internet search—the seated figure of a woman with arm extended just like the reverse of the Wood’s Hibernia copper that I had previously hoped was my coin. In addition to the seated woman, I also could swear I saw a “23” above her left shoulder, something I thought I saw once earlier but immediately chalked up to wishful thinking. Apparently, the peroxide cleaning did have an upside, i.e., it exposed the reverse side’s previously hidden detail. However, because the reverse was cast away as the toasted or image-less side from the outset, I had never even thought to check it post-cleaning. Duh! Ironically, it now offered new hope towards finally getting an ID. Flipping the pages of my U.S. coin reference book for confirmation, I asked myself: Could the coin actually be a 1723 Wood’s Hibernia copper? I was clearly re-energized.

Knowing Grant’s sound technical skills, I asked him if he could trace the outline of the woman’s image I thought I saw, as I intended to post it to a well-known treasure Web site in hopes of someone confirming an ID. Grant did so—after I had to point out what I thought I saw; he did not initially see the woman’s image and thought I was deluded. Well, my forum post asking for assistance with an ID went unreplied to and I was a bit discouraged. However, later that day I was at Grant’s house and he started to play around with the pictures of my coin and an actual picture of a 1723 Wood’s Hibernia copper. He ran a series of overlays of both sides of the Hibernia sample over my coin in progression first using no overlay, then applying a very light overlay, then a heavier overlay, etc. Lining up the coin and adjusting the scale just so, a eureka! moment occurred: It was clear that the super-imposition matched the Hibernia sample to the faint images and letters on both sides of the coin. Finally, a confirmation! Months of wonder had come to a close and it felt great to know that I was holding a small piece of history.

In hindsight, much of this experience was a learning process for me. It provided further evidence substantiating the never-give-up mentality, now applied to metal detecting. It showed me the importance of using the full breadth of ID tools (Internet research, reference books, photo overlay progression, forum posts, etc.) available to you in the ID process. It resounded the delicate caution one should apply to the decision-making process surrounding whether or not to clean a coin. And, finally, it hammered home the point that you just never know what’s lying under the ground—even under your own front lawn!

Hibernia front with overlay progression

Hibernia front with overlay progression

Hibernia back with overlay progression

Hibernia back with overlay progression

This is Grant writing now. I’m hijacking Half Cent’s post… just a little info on how he and I used Photoshop “forensics” to identify this copper. Obviously, HC did all the hard work and we were pretty certain his theory was correct. By highlighting the major features of the Hibernia in question, I extracted just those features from the coin. We then took HC’s find and overlaid on top of the extraction, and a high opacity… just enough to match up text, bust, etc. Because our brains want so desperately to make random bumps and dots into patterns (stare at a cloud long enough and you’ll see a shape), once we thought we lined up a match, we moved the overlay around to many different spots to ensure our brains weren’t fooling us. Once confident, we increased the opacity to allow more of the features to shine through, as HC has posted above. All in all, fun detective work!

hibernia front

This is what the front of an untoasted Hibernia copper looks like.


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