First of all, the most important thing is to search in the right locale. If an area that we are contemplating searching has ONLY seen relatively recent activity, then the coins found there will be modern. It is unreasonable to expect otherwise. The key, then, is to locate areas of OLDER activity, where older coins are more likely to be found. You must know: if you want find old and really cool finds you must have one of the really best metal detector.
How do you locate such sites? As usual, the primary method is by research. The best place to begin your research is the “local history” section of the local library. Especially helpful are the small, unpublished works by local “vanity” authors which detail the early events of the area. A careful reading of these records may bring to light tidbits of information which can lead to worthwhile detecting areas.
When studying such journals, pay particular attention to passages which mention events or circumstances which could lead to promising detecting opportunities. For example, perhaps mention is made that a political rally, sporting event, or religious convention was held at a certain site. Or, that in times past certain areas were used for market places, recreation areas, encampment sites, etc. Obviously, these are prime areas to search, especially if the site remains much as it did.
Old maps of an area are also an invaluable aid in locating old sites, especially if the area has undergone substantial change since the maps were published. Since these old maps may reveal the locations of vanished homesteads, old picnic or recreation spots, old fairgrounds, swimming holes, church meeting grounds, political rally areas, river crossings, or even old parks, schools, churches, crossroads settlements, and the like. Comparing old maps with current ones can help locate these old sites.
Once you get to a site, before unpacking your detector, field walk the site. Recalling what you’ve learned from your research, try to imagine what the site looked like in the old days, by pinpointing landmarks, roads, the location of buildings, taking note of man-made debris, etc. By observation, and deductive reasoning, you may be able to mentally reconstruct the site, and thus prioritize your detecting efforts.
As a general rule, older coins are deeper coins. Which means that specialized detecting techniques may be required to recover them. The following tips will enhance your chances of recovering deep coins from older sites:
1) Operate your detector at the highest level of power that soil conditions will allow. This will help increase depth potential.
2) Sweep your searchcoil as close to the ground as is reasonably possible. The higher the searchcoil is swept off the ground, the less deeply it will detect into the ground. On grassy areas you might want to “scrub” the searchcoil on the ground to gain maximum depth. Use a skidplate cover on the searchcoil to prevent abrasion.
3) Precise ground balancing, if your machine is equipped with this option, will enhance detection depth.
4) Overlap your swings. The reason for this is that the field of detection emanating from the searchcoil somewhat resembles a pointed cone, and the width of detection decreases with depth. At maximum detection range, the area effectively scanned is greatly reduced, hence by overlapping each swing, you better insure at-depth detection of targets.
5) Employ lower discrimination levels. Doing so will get you a bit more depth, and may also pay off in the recovery of interesting targets made of lower-conductivity metals, such as gold or pewter.
6) Get into the habit of paying particular attention to faint and/or “iffy” signals, which are often produced by small, or deep, targets. When you get such signals, repeatedly pass your searchcoil over the very center of the target zone, and analyze the audio response and/or action of the target identity meter. If the signal is consistently repeatable, even if it is a fairly poor signal, then it is a good idea to dig it. This is especially true if the target identity meter does not “lock on” to a specific target identity, and a depth reading indication suggests that the target is deep. “When in doubt, dig it out.”
In fact, in reference to the foregoing, it is a good idea to do some experimentation at home to determine what kind of signal and/or meter indication your machine produces on deep “good” targets. Bury coins at various depths, and analyze your machine’s response to each of them. Doing so may cause you to realize that some of the “not so good” signals you have ignored in the past might have actually been “good” targets.
7) Go slow, be patient. “Racehorse” detectorists may cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, but they usually only find shallow coins, and not too many of those, either. If you want to find older, deeper coins, work, THOROUGHLY, only small areas at a time. “Nibble, don’t gobble.”
8) In areas where you expect old coins to be very deep, and where the amount of metallic surface trash is not great, then you might consider hunting in the all-metal mode. Most multi-mode detectors get significantly greater depth in the all-metal mode than they do in the discriminate mode. When operating in the all-metal mode, dig all signals, especially the faint ones. If your machine is equipped with a target identity meter, use this to “discriminate” targets. Shallow targets will produce a loud signal, and usually “lock on” to their specific identities. Very deep targets usually give faint signals, and will either not give a meter identity at all, or will not lock on, OR, if they are non-ferrous (such as coins,) they will usually “peg” at the far end of the non-ferrous range.
9) Another trick to gain extra depth is to switch to a larger searchcoil. For example, under most conditions, a 10″ diameter searchcoil will detect coins 20% deeper than would a 8″ one.
10) Lastly, to find the maximum number of deep coins from a site, you really need to use the most powerful detector you can buy. If the depth potential of your current machine lags behind that of some of the more modern, high powered models, perhaps serious consideration should be given to upgrading machines.
Additionally, aside from the above, it is well to keep the following in mind:
Over time, portions of once-cleared habitation or recreation areas may have become overgrown with brush. Detecting under bushes, or in the brushy areas, may be very productive, especially if “everyone and his dog” has hunted the open areas of the site before you. Once, at such a site, my companion searched the open areas, while I concentrated on the brushy areas. His searching was fruitless; mine garnered 3 old coins, a rare cap badge, and an intact gold pocket watch. Obviously, less-energetic detectorists had cleaned out the easy-to-hunt areas, but had ignored the brushy ones. This is a very common scenario which the astute detectorist uses to his or her advantage.
Where to Detect?
A prime detecting area that is shunned by most detectorists are dirt roads. I have searched some heavily-hunted sites that were virtually devoid of targets, yet the dirt roads through them abounded with targets. One thing to keep in mind is that the location of dirt roads can change over time, or, that dirt roads may have been cut through the area AFTER the site was abandoned, and perhaps the dirt road now covers a potentially-rich spot, such as a former house site. Once, at a virtually “hunted out” old site, I was detecting the relatively modern dirt road through it. In time, I came upon a spot in the road that was full of targets, many of them clearly indicating that a very small house had formerly stood on the spot, and had burned-down long before the modern dirt road was routed across the site. Since the earlier detectorists on this site had, as usual, ignored the road, from this spot were recovered two old coins, a rare saloon token, and several pieces of antique jewelry.
Even though a site may have been searched extensively, the fringe areas surrounding it may have been ignored, so searching these fringe areas may prove productive. This same principal applies to any potentially-productive areas that are difficult to search. In short, hunt those areas that others have bypassed.
Some sites have seen such extensive or long-term use that they abound in metallic trash, most of which is shallow, and which thus masks those deeper coins or other goodies we are seeking. There are two methods to search such sites. The first is simple: operate in the all-metal mode (or lowest discrimination mode possible) using a standard searchcoil, and to dig all targets. Or, at least, dig enough of the surface targets to allow the detector to reach the deeper ones. The second method is to use a small (3 to 6 inch) searchcoil, instead of the standard 8 to 10 inch versions. The reason for this is that small searchcoils do a much better job of segregating targets, and hence can better pick out good targets lying amidst trash than can standard, larger searchcoils. When using small searchcoils, move the coil slowly, using short strokes, and pass over an area from different angles, hoping to find good stuff among all that trash. Admittedly, small searchcoils generally do no detect as deeply as large ones, but at a very trashy site small searchcoils certainly have their advantages.
Even when following the above suggestions, the recovery of old coins will still rank as a remarkable event for today’s detectorists. One reason is that, in the old days, coins were much less common than they are today. Comparing mintage figures bears this out. For example, in 1793 the Mint produced 110,512 one-cent coins. A century later (1893) the Mint produced some 46,642,195 coins; yet in 1993, the various US Mints coined some 12,114,750,363 cents. Obviously, a wide disparity exists in the numbers produced, circulated, and lost, and this will certainly be reflected in the numbers found. Furthermore, the overall loss-ratio of coins was much lower in times past than it is today, again resulting in fewer potential old coins being found. Today, a single one cent coin has very little buying power, and the loss of such wouldn’t mean much to its owner. However, 200 years ago a single one cent coin may have been worth the better part of an hours wages, and thus the loss of such a coin would have been a significant blow to its owner. Hence, the average person of that time took better care to “pinch pennies,” rather than loose them. Thus, any old coins we DO find should certainly be appreciated.