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Metal Detecting and Treasure Hunting

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Buried treasure. Gold fever. The same passions that drove pirates and explorers around the world centuries ago now drive modern-day metal detectors and treasure hunters in the search for valuables.

These modern-day treasure hunters use metal detectors to dig up old coins, gold and sometimes junk! Whatever they find, enthusiasts say looking for treasure with a metal detector is always an adventure.

"It's good exercise, and a chance to get out and meet people of the same interests and have a good time," says Don Wilson in Concord, New Hampshire.

A metal detector is a sensitive and portable piece of equipment. It is used to sweep an area that might have metal objects buried in the ground or underwater.

"There's stuff that's lost everywhere -- that's no secret -- even if it's only modern stuff and modern coinage," says Gord Manarey. It's not uncommon for people to find only five or six pennies in a day of hunting, or find $30 in a day! "It just depends," he says.

Gold panners use metal detectors to pick good spots for panning.

Treasure hunters don't just sweep any old place. Before they head out on a quest, they often do research in their local library. They look up the location of old settlements, fair grounds, mine sites and even shipwrecks to get a lead on where treasure might be found.

Entry-level metal detectors can locate metal objects buried three to six inches deep. The longer the object has been buried, the more of the metal will leech out into the surrounding soil.

This makes it possible to find objects buried even more deeply than that. Gold is the exception to this -- it does not corrode!

These days, metal detectors are also used by gold miners. Metal detectors help prospectors find potentially good areas to start working. After the metal detector has done its work, the prospector gets out an old-fashioned gold pan and starts panning for gold.

When something sets off the metal detector (called "tripping" by those in the know), treasure hunters start digging. When they're finished, they fill in the hole again.

It's important not to make a mess when you're digging for an object. Metal detectors usually use a screwdriver for retrieving objects. "You can take a lot out and not make a mess," says Manarey.

In the Southern United States, you can go metal detecting year-round. In the rest of the U.S., metal detection and treasure hunting only happens in the spring, summer and fall when the ground isn't frozen.

Don't let the snow stop you from using your metal detector! Manarey often helps out friends who have lost rings or car keys while shoveling snow!

Some treasure hunters scour beaches with their metal detectors, especially after storms, looking for gold coins and other valuables washed up from Spanish shipwrecks.

You can't use metal detectors everywhere.

Betty Weeks is the vice-president of the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archeological Clubs (FMDAC). She says metal detectors are off limits in national parks, military battlefields and near federal monuments. And you can only search private property with permission from the owner.

"[You have to be] very aware of the laws regarding your activity," writes Jim Macino at his Eureka! Web site.

"Just being thought of as rude may not be the only penalty that you could endure. In some states, you can lose your detection equipment, receive a fine, or worse. It is absolutely your responsibility to know and abide by the law."

The Federation of Metal Detectors and Archeological Clubs estimates it has 140,000 members in the United States and Canada.

Metal detectors were used in the Second World War to detect landmines. In the 1950s treasure hunter Karl von Mueller was using a metal detector to find buried gold around old missions in the American Southwest. By the '60s, metal detectors had found a hobby market with people looking for gold and old coins.

Weeks and her husband have been using a metal detector for almost 30 years. They bought one from a magazine when they were regularly looking for valuable rocks in the Mojave Desert in California. The metal detector helped them look for gold at the same time.

There is a cost to get into this activity -- and that's the cost of a metal detector. You can buy a decent machine for between $400 and $1,200.

Some entry-level models cost only a couple hundred dollars. Look for ones that are made by manufacturers that also make high-end machines, to ensure you're getting a good model.

The difference between these and more expensive gear is "bells and seatbelts," says Manarey. Cheaper models have only one adjustment, for instance.

A standard metal detector has a long handle with a disc-shaped sensor on the end. A meter in a separate power box displays the amount of metal being detected. The person using the detector wears a set of earphones to listen to the sounds the machine makes.

It makes a variety of sounds, like clicks and alarms, depending on the type of metal detected. Most treasure hunters know whether they've found a tin can or a coin buried in the ground because of the sound their metal detector is making.

This is a hobby that many people can enjoy. Since the detectors are quite lightweight, almost anyone can carry them, including children and the elderly. The FMDAC says one of its members is 92 and still metal detecting.

Some people make treasure hunting with metal detectors a full-time job. Some treasure hunters have found sunken ships full of gold! Weeks says you have to have money to be a professional treasure seeker, because sometimes it takes two or three years to find a large treasure. "If you ever find it!" warns Weeks.

Researchers and archeologists sometimes use metal detectors to help find tools and weapons at historic sites. The metal detector can help narrow down the area that archeologists have to dig.

Of course, a hobby in metal detecting could always lead to a career selling the equipment. There are a number of metal detectors for sale in America. Popular brands include Fisher, Garret, White and Tesorso.

Getting Started

If you're interested in this activity, first learn more about it. If you know anyone who already does this activity, ask permission to tag along on their treasure-hunting rambles.

Don't be fooled by advertisements about detectors that say they will make you rich. If it sound too good to be true, it probably is, says Manarey. Remember, this activity does require research and digging to win the prize!

Find a metal detecting club in your community. These clubs provide good information and lots of fellowship. Some even organize competitions for metal detectors!

Contact a local recreation center or even a chamber of commerce -- they usually have a list of active clubs. You could also look in the phone book under metal detecting equipment. Any businesses listed will likely know the names of local enthusiasts.

Think before you buy. Richard Morrow says many shops now rent metal detectors, so you can try before you buy. Weeks says metal detector manufacturers usually visit any large competition and let people try out new equipment.

Buying used is a great way to save money, too, suggests Manarey.


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The public outreach and educational arm of Underwater Archeology and Discovery, Ltd.

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