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Local Property Shows Its Timeline in Coinage

Posted by on December 23, 2012

1861 US Half DimeCommon folklore is none too kind to mother-in-laws. Say what you want about yours, but mine happens to be a big supporter of my metal detecting hobby. She’s not only a genuine proponent of this seemingly strange interest her son-in-law has, she is actually more of an agent, often acquiring permission for me to detect on her friends’ properties. In fact, some of my better local finds are a direct result of the permission granted to me through her.

This week, based on a lead that came once again thanks to my mother-in-law, I was lucky to have access to a local 2-acre property that is very close (.3 miles to be exact) to one of the oldest homes in town (circa 1727). I was warmly welcomed by my mother-in-law’s friend, whom I’ve known for years, and generously granted free reign to have at it and see what history was hidden beneath the soil there. Most land owners, while graciously granting permission to explore their properties, do so with measured curiosity, which equates to something like, “I’m not sure what you’re after, but please be my guest.” I got this sense from my host, but it was overshadowed by her overflowing generosity: she took me on a “tour” of her property, showing me the back boundaries of the property line, and later offered me lunch. I was very grateful, but I shouldn’t be surprised. This is a hobby, after all, that greatly depends on the generosity of others to offer new land to search. While the golfer can play the same course, the gardener can marvel at the same flower bed—you get the point—the metal detectorist reaches a certain plateau with a property once they have scoured it completely (typically several visits). Unless they upgrade to a metal detector that goes deeper and/or provides better target identification, once a yard is “hunted out” it’s time to move on to the next locale.

Well, upbeat from said generosity, I began my hunt close to the driveway. I started slow, knowing I could likely return to the property until it was fully searched. Immediately, I started digging some larger thin junk metal that masked itself with a good tone and high visual display indicator (or VDI, a number on the screen that “measures” how conductive a target is). Making my way in a straight line towards the far end of the backyard, I intended to grid the property in rows so I wouldn’t miss anything. (Happily, I ended up doing a poor job—read on.) Back and forth I went, digging nothing old or of note. Most of my targets were clad (more modern) coins and they all seemed to be only 2 or less inches down. It continued like this and as the day progressed, so did my frustration.

I should mention that I had been in a slump lately, finding only modern coinage and absolutely no old or interesting buttons on my last few hunts. So, taken into context with what I was experiencing thus far this day, I started to question my abilities at this hobby. Is it me? Is it the detector? Are the properties, though seemingly old, just not holding anything of age? It was likely thanks to a bit of all three.

Well, just off the back of the house is a nice, older tree that had my attention from the start. (Trees are usually magnets for the good finds. After all, people sit against or rest up near trees or leave their belongings propped up against them while they attend to other activities. Either way, items fall out of pockets, purses, or bags and get lodged somewhere near tree roots.) I circled my way around the tree, digging another modern coin. Hmmm. “Well, let me follow the tree roots outward,” I thought. Just a few feet beyond one of them, I got a VDI in the 70s on my detector. A VDI in the 70s is usually a wild card; it’s a high tone below copper but above nickel and definitely worth digging. However, I wasn’t expecting anything, likely because of the way the day was going. Digging a small hole, I took my hand-held pinpointer out and scanned the dirt. The target was apparently close to the surface. “Great, another shallow clad coin,” I thought. When I moved some dirt, however, the unmistakable glimmer of silver shined back at me. It was tiny—what was it? I rotated the coin back and forth and saw the familiar image of a seated figure. I thought I had my first seated dime—a prized find by detectorists. Turning the coin over, though, I noticed it said “half dime.” Even better! I thought I saw the date 1861, but couldn’t be sure. This old coin was only 3 inches maximum below the surface. (Grant’s theory as to why half dimes tend to be so shallow is that the coin’s light weight prevents it from sinking into the soil too far.) I was elated, not only because of such a good find, but it represented the end of my dry streak! I had renewed hope in both the site and my abilities.

1861 US Half Dime

1861 US Half Dime

Moments later, I uncovered a 1946 silver Roosevelt dime. The day had certainly turned in my favor. I figured I’d quit while I was ahead and proceed to alert my kind host that I was done for the day. I showed her the half dime and she was intrigued. We looked under a magnifying glass and confirmed the half dime’s date to be 1861. I thanked her and said I’d be back.

Being a man of my word, a few days later, as the high from the half dime still lingered, I arranged to come back to the property for further exploration. If an 1861 half dime lingered under the soil, there was likely some other good finds to be had.

I proceeded to work the other half of the backyard (with a pitstop to the site of the half dime excavation; sometimes, good finds have close friends) and again pulled out modern coin after modern coin. Closer to the house, I located a “dime spill,” i.e., a 1944 mercury dime, 1964 Roosevelt silver dime, and a modern dime. “Ok, at least if I find nothing else, I’ve left with silver,” I thought. Backyard exploration now over, I took on the side yard, which I had a good feeling about. Well, I’m apparently no psychic because all that I uncovered in the side yard was many shards of siding. These shards are always found around homes and they get you every time because they ring up as silver on your detector, only to disappoint.

Silver dimes - 20 years of separation

Silver dimes - 20 years of separation

I had my eyes on the front yard from the outset, so I was anxious to move there and I did in time. I was getting nothing of interest at all, much to my surprise, when I got what every detectorist hopes for—a “99” VDI— on my screen. A 99 is famously indicative of a Morgan silver dollar, but so far in the many times I’ve had such a VDI, it always turned out to be some larger junk item masking itself as something memorable. I slowly dug the plug, flipped it over, and instantly saw that I was foiled again: It was just a washer the size of a silver dollar. Oh well, at least it provided a moment of excitement.

The day was growing old, it was getting darker, and I was exhausted. It was time to pack it up for the day. I decided to loop around the backyard on my way to the driveway on the other side because, hey, you never know. Walking and swinging aimlessly around the back, I got a solid 85 VDI on my detector. That number is almost always a modern quarter on my machine and I was indeed right after a quick dig. Starting to swing again, I got another 85 and another modern quarter. Then another and, yes, again another. Quarter spill? How did I miss this the first time around?

On I went until I approached a patch of dirt about 15 yards from the driveway. I was stopped in my tracks by a VDI solidly hitting at 82, 83, 82, etc. Thinking I had another mercury or silver Roosevelt dime, I proceeded to dig. About 4-5 inches down, my pinpointer signaled the target was near. Moving some more dirt, I fully expected to see silver reflecting back at me. I was absolutely shocked to see a large green coin sift thru the dirt into my hands. Yes! Large copper coins (“coppers”) are exactly what I hope for when I’m out detecting. My hands were shaking as I tried to find some identifying marks on it. I couldn’t readily see anything and wiping the dirt off risked scratching its surface, so I just put it on the ground next to the hole and proceeded to take some shaky pictures with my phone’s camera—not shaky because of the phone, shaky because of my nerves.

Louis XVI French Sol, circa 1774-1792

Louis XVI French Sol, circa 1774-1792

I held the coin proudly in my hands and knocked on my host’s door to show her the copper. She could easily see my excitement and rinsed the coin off for me. I told her I would do a proper examination of it at home and let her know what it was. I also said I’d be back—this yard does hold some real history and I want more of it!

At home, I examined the coin under a magnifying glass and could quickly see the form of a shield with a crown above it. Flipping the coin over, I couldn’t immediately make anything out, but further study revealed a left-facing bust. I took to Google images and typed in various search terms like “shield and crown,” and “copper coin.” Search results showed many Spanish coins—apparently the shield and crown was a much-used motif way back when. However, most all of the examples I found online, no matter what year or era, had a right-facing bust to go along with the shield/crown image on the reverse. Finally, after more search terms and a measurement of 29mm in hand, I was able to locate a likely ID: a Louis XVI French Sol, circa 1774-1792. I haven’t cleaned it further, but intend to. I hope to get a date off of it, but I’m pretty certain as to the ID.

As I write this, I am planning to go back again to see what other history I can unearth at this site. Where there are old coins, there are others, not to mention old buttons and other colonial or 19th Century relics. So far, the items recovered represent a broad spectrum of dates—these no doubt trace the evolution of the property, but they also truly mean that anything could be lurking there—so stay tuned!

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