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In search of buried bounty: metal detector hobby grows

Although metal detectors have been around for several decades, their use today for amateur treasure hunting may well be one of the world's fastest-growing pastimes.

There are about a dozen US manufacturers of these easy-to-operate instruments. And sales now total about $40 million annually. An industry source estimates that about 1 million Americans, and thousands more around the world, regularly use detectors to search for coins, many varieties of relics, precious metals, and buried money caches.

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For years a popular pastime in the United States, metal detecting activity has recently soared in several foreign countries. Old Roman battlegrounds and encampments are popular searching sites in England, as are beaches, parks, and other centuries-old locations.

For example, two Britishers -a bricklayer and an engineer -have used their detectors to unearth 56,500 silver Roman coins buried about 1,700 years ago at a Roman campsite on what is now a farm.

At about the same time, metal detector users have searched bunker sites along the Siegfried Line in Germany, recovering scores of German and American weapons, medals, and personal possessions.

In Australia, a detectorwielding hobbyist found an 800-plus-ounce gold nugget. It was reportedly sold to a pair of Las vegas casino owners for an estimated $1 million.

Working their way through Greece, two American detector users have uncovered valuable coins from around 400 BC; while in Canada, another hobbyist found 500 gold and silver rings and 20,000 new and old coins from beaches and swimming hole areas.

The reports of such finds, both in the US and abroad, abound. One can hardly go anywhere today without seeing "TH'ers," short for treasure hunters, waving their detectors over the ground. Many, many more rusty cans have been found than gold coins, however, and the average searcher shouldn't expect to earn back his investment with his finds.

Nevertheless, treasure hunters seem to be everywhere. They can be spotted in city parks, around old homesites, along sandy beaches, in gold-bearing stream beds, strolling over former Civil War battle sites, or at any one of the many other locations likely to contain lost or buried treasure.

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With earphones clamped to their heads and wearing expressions of fierce concentration, they listen to their detectors "talk" to them about what is buried in the ground below. They appear to be totally in a world of their own. An Alabama resident who specializes in searching for deeply buried Civil War artillery shells puts it this way: "Using a metal detector to search for any type of buried treasure or historical relic has to be the most exciting and interesting thing I've ever done."

Indicative of this hobby's popularity is the more than 200 treasure clubs that have sprung up worldwide; the scores of annual treasure-hunting competitions; and the several domestic and foreign magazines and newsletters that promote and report about the hobby.

Metal detectors range in price and quality from $29.95 discount house models (which offer little depth of detection capability and erratic operation) to $400 versions that will sniff out coins and small relics at amazing depths, find a cache of coins at several feet, or easily detect gold or silver nuggets. A discriminating instrument, which will give reasonably good depth and efficient operation, can be purchased for about $150 to $200.

Most of the better detectors have some type of discrimination capability, which allows the operator to set the instrument to reject various metallic trash items while still accepting coins, rings, relics, and other valuables. This greatly reduces the amount of digging necessary.

Would-be buyers might be well advised to purchase a detector from an authorized dealer or the factory and not from a multi-item sales outlet where salespeople generally know little about the operation and capabilities of detectors. If possible, it's best to try a detector out before purchasing it to make certain that operation of the controls is fully understood. The instruction books are easy to understand, however, and knowledge of electronics is not required.

The type of detector needed depends on what it is to be used for. Casual searching, where items are not likely to be buried too deeply, usually requires only a relatively inexpensive instrument with discrimination capability for trashy areas. Searching for deeply buried material, such as Civil War relics, is best accomplished with the more expensive, deeper-probing instruments.

Anyone considering the purchase of a detector might first do some reading to learn what the hobby encompasses. The "bible" in the field is Charles Garrett's "Successful Coin Hunting" (Dallas: RAM Publishing Company, $6.95). Written by an established treasure hunter, who is also a metal detector expert, it offers hundreds of tips on where to search, and describes research sources, types of detectors, their operating characteristics, and what can be expected of each.

There are also several magazines devoted to the metal detecting hobby which are sold on newsstands. They describe finds made by readers, give how-to tips, and tell where to product literature and catalogs from leading detector manufacturers. Typical titles are "Western and Eastern Treasures," "Treasure Found," and "Treasure."

Do detector users automatically have the right to search wherever they like? Certainly not. Permission must always be obtained before searching on private property. In some foreign countries, a nominal license fee is charged for the privilege of operating a detector on public lands.

In the US, national pars are usually off limits to detector owners, as are state-owned parks and beaches. The site of any state or national historic monument is also forbidden. There is generally no problem searching beaches, playgrounds, schoolyards, picnic areas, campgrounds, fairgrounds, swimming areas , and the may other similar public use locations. Depending upon how long and heavily these types of spots have been used, finds will range form a very little to a lot and from very old to quite new. For instance, a park used since 1900 will likely contain new coins and other valuables near the surface and old, potentially valuable ones at several inches' depth.

Locating unique and potentially productive locations to search is also part of the fun for aficionados. Most serious detector users spend some time perusing history books, old maps, early newspapers, andd historical society records and talking to people, trying to pin down locations where early residents lived, congregated, and played. Often, today's vacant lots were yesterday's carnival grounds. When searched with a detector, they may yield a variety of coins and other valuables.

Metal detectors can be taken almost anywhere. They're lightweight (four to five pounds). Most models can be disassembled and packed into special cases for air travel. Many enthusiasts keep them stowed in their cars for spur-of-the-moment trips to nearby areas and for vacation traveling.

Aside from the adventure of searching, some treasure hunters are mainly looking for profit. In today's sagging economy, gold and silver coins and relics more than keep up with inflation. Silver coins (pre-1964) are worth several times their face value for bullion and are commonly found.

For those who seek it, hidden treasure excites and enthralls like nothing else

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