Using technology to find the hidden history beneath our feet

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Ed and Kay Thomas watched as Scott Clark used a metal detector around an old bur oak near a circa 1810 farmhouse they are restoring in Bourbon County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

PARIS — I always thought it would be fun to have a metal detector. I wasn’t so much interested in hunting for buried treasure as finding bits of history hidden a few inches beneath my feet.

Scott Clark, an Internet business consultant in Lexington, has similar interests. An avid metal detectorist since 1985, he has become quite skilled at it — and increasingly passionate about improving the ethics and image of his hobby.

Metal detecting doesn’t have the best of reputations, thanks to “treasure hunters” who look for relics on Civil War battlefields or pock-mark parks in search of lost valuables. Many historical archaeologists view detectorists about as favorably as a brain surgeon would a witch doctor.

130430Detectoring-TE0074But serious detectorists are trying to change that. Earlier this year, Clark was part of a group that worked with archaeologists to explore James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia. Clark co-authored an article with Montpelier archaeologist Matthew Reeves on the blog of the Society for Historical Archaeology about how the two groups can work together and literally find common ground.

Clark has a blog at Detecting.us and often writes about best practices in the hobby. Those include always asking landowners’ permission before detecting, sharing finds with them and digging carefully so grounds are not damaged. He also avoids truly historic areas, such as battlefields.

Clark often donates his services to people who have lost valuables outside. Last month, he found a wedding band for a Versailles man after it slipped off his finger while he was mowing his yard.

Clark said he never accepts payment or rewards, but people often thank him by arranging access to interesting sites he can search. “The currency of the hobby is permission, which requires being trustworthy and transparent,” he said.

Clark detects to relax and for the love of history rather than profit. He said he has never sold anything he found — and even if he did, it wouldn’t begin to cover the thousands of dollars he has invested in detecting equipment.

Mostly, Clark finds old shoe buckles, keys, buttons, tools and coins. His most valuable find? A silver 1838 half-dime, worth a couple hundred dollars.

130430Detectoring-TE0408Clark said he likes to detect in places where people would have gathered a century or more ago — and lost things out of their pockets. That includes the grounds around old homes, schools, churches and stores.

Clark offered to show me how detecting works, then asked if I knew of a good hunting place. I immediately thought of Kay and Ed Thomas.

The Thomases live in a beautiful home in Bourbon County that her ancestors built in 1792. While restoring the place, the fun-loving couple delighted in finding interesting objects from the past. They are now restoring another place nearby — a circa-1810 brick farmhouse that her family bought in the 1940s.

As I suspected, the Thomases jumped at the chance to have Clark search their yards. Ed Thomas tagged along with Clark for the better part of three days while he carefully went over the ground with his detector, watching its dials and listening to its beeps, squawks and squeals.

To the untrained ear, the detector sounded like an arcade video game. But to Clark, the tones and gauges indicated the presence of objects in the ground — how big they were, what kind of metal they were made of and how deep they were, indicating how long they had been there.

Clark’s most interesting find on the Thomases’ property was a coin silver filigree bracelet with ivory cameos, which Kay Thomas thinks a long-dead relative bought on a European tour. He also found a few old coins, including an 1868 penny; spoon bowls of silver and pewter; a 1937 American Legion fob; old livestock tags and pieces of horse tack; and the remains of tools.

“Normally, I find three times this much stuff,” Clark said, clearly disappointed.

But the Thomases were thrilled — and not surprised that he didn’t find more.

“My relatives were frugal people!” Kay Thomas said. “If they had lost a gold ring, they would have been out here 24/7 until they found it.”

Ed Thomas also found something: a new hobby. For his birthday last Friday, his wife gave him a metal detector.

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