Metal detectors in hand, hobbyists live for the buzz

Treasure hunters gather for event in Annapolis

October 06, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Barney Dolt, his right arm swinging like a pendulum and a bead of sweat dangling from his nose, searched for treasure yesterday morning along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay.

Through earmuff-sized headphones, he heard his metal detector hit a tone that tells him he's found something. The 67-year-old Eldersburg resident deftly stooped to sift through the sand, and uncovered a coin.

"Too many pennies," he grumbled as he tossed it into the basket strapped to his waist.

But he can't complain too much - earlier that day, Dolt helped plant the coins in a cordoned-off area of the beach as big as a football field.

In what can be described as a grown-up form of an Easter egg hunt, about 60 treasure hunters scoured the beach at Sandy Point State Park yesterday morning in search of buried silver coins and tokens.

The metal-detecting enthusiasts came from throughout Maryland and from as far as North Carolina to participate in an all-day hunt sponsored by the Maryland Artifact Recovery Society.

Hunters could keep any of the buried coins - about $400 worth were hidden inches below the surface - and 72 tokens, which could be exchanged for prizes ranging from a silver half-dollar to a Fisher metal detector valued at $1,700.

Called a "planned hunt," the event was a dress rehearsal for genuine hunts, where the prizes can be anything from a soda can pull-tab to a thousand-dollar piece of lost jewelry to a priceless relic from the Civil War.

Like the chunks of metal they're after, treasure hunters can be hard to spot - they blend into shorelines and lurk in thick vegetation farther inland - but they're everywhere.

Longtime treasure hunters estimate that thousands of metal-detecting enthusiasts are active on the East Coast, and five metal-detecting clubs - each with about 40 members - are registered with the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs.

In Maryland, where winters tend to be mild and the ground rarely freezes, treasure hunters are out year-round.

The most visible metal detecting is done by amateur beachcombers, who spend about $100 each on unsophisticated machines and sweep beaches looking for junk jewelry that bathers have dropped in the sand.

Serious treasure hunters scoff at them.

Those who are intent - the ones who invest thousands of dollars in computerized equipment - comb places such as cornfields and sites of demolished building for relics and valuables. They prefer to be called metal "detectorists."

The thrill of the hunt

It is not a cheap hobby. Metal detectors, which weigh between 2 pounds and 7 pounds and look like weed cutters, range in price from $150 to almost $2,000, with good-quality ones starting at about $700. Accessories, such as digging knives, shovels and pails, add to the bill.

But the emotional high of detecting a treasure - no matter how small or insignificant it might turn out to be - offsets the expense, enthusiasts say.

At a recent Maryland Artifact Recovery Society meeting in Linthicum, about two dozen members, mostly men from their late 30s to retirement age, proudly displayed the month's best and most unusual finds.

In displays reminiscent of school projects, the old coins, buttons, thimbles, glass bottles, and chunks of dishes were organized into categories on poster board or neatly laid out in clear cases.

Most detectorists say they don't spend hours in a field looking for treasure. Rather, the thrill of the hunt, they say, keeps them swinging their machines.

"Every time you get that beep, your heart starts going," said John Fassel, 41, an avid treasure hunter who lives in Salisbury.

Although Dolt collected a pocketful of change and one prize token during the hunt yesterday morning, he walked off the beach with a smile.

A treasure hunter for four decades, he said the open hunts are more about seeing old friends and swapping detecting stories than making money and winning prizes.

"Johnny! What're you doing out here?" he called jokingly to his buddy and fellow MARS member John Gillin, 63, of Baltimore, bumping into him during the hunt.

"Barney! How are you doin', sweetheart?" Gillin bantered.

Lost and found

Like any hobby, treasure hunting can become mundane. To avoid burnout, lots of searchers will switch from land hunting to beach hunting and even do a bit of water searching.

"It can get boring at times," said Bob Neighoff, an Elkridge resident and MARS member. "It's not a gold mine out there."

Sometimes, though, the hunters strike pay dirt.

A clear diamond mounted on a gold band twinkles on Cynthia Fassel's ring finger. Her husband, John, wears a heavy gold ring faintly engraved with a family crest.

Both are finds they were unable to return to the original owners. John Fassel unearthed the gold ring in Palm Beach, Fla., about three years ago, and the engagement ring turned up on a beach in Ocean City.

"It's not like we can advertise that we found something, because then you have dozens of phonies call you up claiming it's theirs," he said.

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