By Mike Haer – Mike is the host of All Metal Mode and All Metal Mode UK Detecting podcastsand has a regular blog on allmetalmode.com
For many years now, my favorite form of metal detecting has been Relic hunting. Hunting the farm fields in Rural Ohio to be more specific but I’ve also spent some time in the woods relic hunting where long gone sites once where. The best way to quickly hunt down potential sites is overlaying the oldest maps you can find that show where houses, churches, mills and other buildings were. The best of these sites the structure was gone before pre plumbing and electric.
Something that has perplexed me since I first begun overlaying maps and detecting these field sites is every now and then I can’t locate a site I’ve overlaid. There can be several reasons for this, matter of fact I just learned of one today. I’ve reached out to several relic hunters who have ran into the same thing as me and no one I’ve spoken to was able to shed much light on the situation. Instead I found them as stumped as me.
Understanding field sites & overlaying
Before I go any further I would like to explain a few things to help paint a better picture for those who might read this who haven’t detected field sites. Once I find these sites there is no doubt when you come across it in the field. They are littered with iron. Where the structure stood you could probably pull out 20 nails per shovel full of dirt and although the heavy debris area might differ in size I would say on the small end its 20 yards x 20 yards and sometimes much bigger, there is no doubt you are on the site. Along with the iron you will always find telltale signs such as glass, pottery, brick, stone and other debris that will almost always be found at these places even in some of the earliest sites I’ve detected. Earlier sites sometimes produce less iron and I’ve even been on a few that produce very little but those earlier settlers still managed to lose enough that there was no doubt the spot was inhabited.
Most of the earliest county maps for Ohio are 1850’s to 1880’s. Surprisingly, most maps are very accurate. That’s not to say they can’t be off and there is the possibility I’ve overlaid incorrectly but I’ve been doing this for years, I have honed my skills and it has led me directly to sites so many times that I couldn’t begin to count. When I do come across a site I can’t find the first thing I do is check my work and try to overlay it again. It’s also worth mentioning if I do go out to a new site and don’t find it right away I will circle out, sometimes for hours looking for the iron debris and other indicators.
I’ve heard of places, such as parts of Pennsylvania where they took the topsoil off of fields, stripped the coal and put the topsoil back leaving stuff scattered all over the field and not concentrated in one area. This does not apply to the parts of Ohio I’ve hunted but it could apply to you if you’re detecting in other states. My friend Bill Marsh who was one of the people I spoke with said they supposedly would add sites that were to be built soon and for whatever reason were never built. The problem with this at least for some of the sites I’ve not been able to find is they are often on two different maps, years apart. One scenario I have thought about is the possibility of at some point topsoil being sold from the property. An issue I have with this is feet of topsoil would have had to be sold off and in most cases, the places I have hunted, the topsoil is only a few feet deep before you hit clay yet these sites still have a few feet of topsoil. Another possible theory but unlikely that once the dwelling became uninhabited it was buried. Again, there are issues with this theory, the strongest one being there should still be some artifacts in the vicinity to be discovered and in many cases there has been absolutely nothing. My last theory is alien abduction, aliens came in took the family and house… Ok, I am only kidding.
In figure 1 the sites with a yellow pushpin were overlaid to perfection and is exactly where I found the heaviest of iron. Those in red were not found. Example D and E there is a possibility that the map maker was off but I would have at least suspected to find debris in the field yet I found it sterile. I also find it highly unlikely that A,B and C and D overlaid perfectly E, F and G showed no signs of activity. The square red areas were the search areas I covered in case the map was off or I was off while overlaying.
Figure 2 was another one that didn’t make much sense to me and was again a clean field with no signs of anything ever being there. It also happened to show up on more than one map which means it should have existed and I should have found it. Another thing that makes this strange to me I overlaid and found other sites off the same map and even in very close vicinity to this one that overlaid almost perfectly. I would also like to say that I didn’t search the woods because it was all steep land where it would be highly unlikely of a house being located in those areas and by all indications shouldn’t have been that far off to begin with.
There are at least a few more instances where this has happened to me but I think these two are sufficient examples.
Looking for answers
This mystery has intrigued me for years and I hate not having an answer. Most of these sites I have no idea or even a vague idea of what could be going on. The land for both examples appears to be undisturbed with a lot of topsoil, the fact that other sites on the property or in very close proximity were overlaid with no issues tells me the map maker was accurate or at least close enough that these sites should have been found if they were there. To not find any iron, bricks, pottery, glass and other debris makes no sense to me at all especially since these examples would have been there when iron would have been readily available and heavily relied upon. These are only a few examples and it has happened a handful of times throughout the years. It is something I someday hope to have answered. If you have any ideas or theories I would love to hear them!