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Sweeping for treasure

Metal detectors teach big patience, can yield big rewards

The metal detector has come a long way since Alexander Graham Bell invented it in 1881. For about $400, you can buy a good entry-level unit with state-of-the-art technology. It’s a fun outdoor activity with the bonus of exercise and the possibility of finding something of value. 

“No other hobby I can think of has a return like this,” says Ed Burke, vice president of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeology Clubs.If you work at it, you can find enough coins and jewelry over time to pay for your detector. 

I’ve been a “metal detectorist” for over 15 years. I remember working an old house site when I heard a solid tone in my headphones. When I uncovered the coin-shaped target, covered in green patina, I suspected it was old. It turned out to be a campaign token from Kentucky’s Henry Clay when he ran for president against James K. Polk in 1844. 

In simple terms, the wires embedded in the loop or search coil at the end of the detector generate an electromagnetic field that detects metal objects when the coil is swept over the ground. Today, hobbyists can even filter out metals they don’t want. You can choose to “relic hunt” for old iron objects or set the machine to detect high quality metals such as silver and gold. 

But here are the drawbacks: This hobby takes a lot of patience. 

You definitely won’t find treasure every time you go out. I’ve had days when I found nothing but bottle caps and pull tabs. Also, don’t even think about detecting on federal lands. The American Antiquities Act was enacted to protect federal lands by stopping the destruction or disturbance (and that includes metal detecting) of pre-historic Native American Grounds. Kentucky state parks and monuments are off limits, too. 

Many beaches in coastal states and some municipalities allow metal detecting, but you need to check. The best place to pursue this hobby is on private land, either your own or someone else’s if you have permission. 

I like to look for the crumbling remains of old home sites. Sometimes there are no visible remains, but in the spring if I see daffodils (March lilies) growing in the middle of a farmer’s field, it’s a good bet that someone planted those bulbs around their house long, long ago. 

After 15 years of metal hunting, I still get excited every time I hit the field. It’s a lot like fishing. Every cast just might nab you a big one—and every scoopful of dirt just might reveal the glitter of gold or silver.

For an explanation of Kentucky laws and other information pertaining to metal detecting go For metal detecting news and tips go to

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