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Shadow Research Center

Searching Plowed Fields - by Amy Maruso

Chances are, no matter where you live, there is a farmfield within close proximity of your home. Perhaps you pass it day after day, turning a blind eye to this level expanse, while focusing on more appealing sites such as old homes, parks, or schoolyards. From the surface up, ploughed fields don't offer much visual excitability, but below the rows of vegetables and cotton can lie a potential gold mine of good finds. Some of the best sites I've hunted have been cornfields, and with each successive outing came the learning of new techniques to maximize results while minimizing time spent searching.

Not just any ploughed field will produce good finds, although most will yield SOME finds by virtue of the farming activity that has taken place over time. What can't be seen, and what isn't known unless thorough research is performed, is the old cabin that once stood beneath the lone copse of trees still standing at the northern end of the field. Or the picnickers of days-gone-by frolicking next to the irrigation steam, or the soldiers casting lead bullets over an open campfire after a day of mustering in the fields. Areas that have reverted back to farmland after the occupants have moved on offer little visual clues, but for the astute detectorist who has done her homework, locating such a site can reap many valuable rewards.

One of the greatest advantages of searching farmfields is the ease of obtaining permission. As long as you don't leave holes, most farmers will readily grant access between plantings. In speaking to the landowner, make sure to ask if he's ever ploughed up bricks, foundation stones, pottery, or any indication of prior occupation. One landowner I spoke to shared his knowledge of an old cabin that had once stood in the woods at the edge of the cornfield. Now nothing more than a barely visible indentation reclaimed by vegetation, this small area produced 23 large cents, over 35 buttons, an ornate gold wax seal, and numerous colonial artifacts. Another farmer recalled clearing foundation stones from a section of cornfield which later produced 4 One Reales, 2 Half Reales, an 1851 3 cent piece, 14 large cents, musketballs, buttons, and an interesting assortment of relics.
One disadvantage to hunting plowed fields is usually the poor condition of the artifact or coin. If it hasn't been hit by the plough or eaten by fertilizer, it was probably tumbled flat between the rocks. That won't always be the case, as I've pulled pristine Colonial coins that have miraculously escaped falling prey to the factors above.

Detecting a farmfield requires a slightly different technique than hunting a lawn, park, or schoolyard. In a field of any size, overlapping your swings is practically a ridiculous notion until your first "hotspot" is located. You may have to walk quite a distance before there is an interruption of "dead air" in your headphones. If you want to do this type of hunting, you must acquire patience, the meaning of which will be driven home once you've swung a detector for an hour without a single signal. And although you may return home with only 5 or 6 keepers at the end of the day, you'll probably be more satisfied than if you found an apron full of clad.

Unlike undisturbed ground, where the target is usually surrounded by a signal-enhancing halo, farmfield finds have had little time to leach into the soil, and depth will be somewhat compromised. Further detriment to depth is the lack of compact soil. If the field has been freshly turned, the soil will be loose and spongy - not a good medium for finding deep targets. The great equalizer to lack of depth, though, is the plough itself. When the earth is turned, targets are brought to the surface, and most of your finds will be plucked from shallow depths.

One of the most important advantages you can give yourself in a ploughed field is knowing how your detector responds to iron. If you've searched parks and schoolyards, you know what a nuisance trash can be, but trash won't be a problem so much as iron in a ploughed field. Tractor parts, plough tips, horseshoes, nails and a plethora of other iron debris lie in wait to discourage all but those who are familiar with their detector's response to this annoying metal native to all ploughed fields. For the most part, a rusted piece of metal will have a broken or scratchy sound to it, but a larger, more solid piece will give a good signal. In fields where there may have been military activity, there is always the possibility of finding cannonballs or mortar bomb fragments, so some of the solid sounds will have to be dug. In relic hunting, there is a phrase that goes, "rust is a must," and just like digging trash in a park to find gold rings, it is necessary to dig some iron in order to find that special keeper.

There will be instances where the farmer will have no recollection of any prior activity on his land, but your research tells you differently. Where would you begin to search for clues to the past? In most facets of relic hunting, there are simple rules-of-thumb that can make your hunt more productive. First, think like a Colonial. Since there was no such convenience as plumbing back in early times, the nearest water source was usually a hub of activity in sustaining daily life. If you're hunting next to a river, check the banks, as that is where trash was often deposited. Next, look for any rises in the land that would have afforded good views and a dryer elevation. Always a good place to check is any stand of trees where there may be old foundation stones too cumbersome for the farmer to clear. The trees may also have been left standing to offer shady shelter on sweltering days.

Lastly, a few words on gear. Stepping between high rows and low furrows is no picnic wearing just a pair of sneakers. Your feet will take less of a beating if you wear a pair of boots that offer good toe and ankle support. Plus, if the field is muddy, any footgear that doesn't lace up tightly at least over the ankle will be sucked off in short order. Ask me. I've lost 3 pair to mud. Since you will probably take 5 pounds of it per boot home with you, it's also a good idea to spread some newspaper on the floor of your car before leaving. And leave your dainty digging tools at home. A good size relic shovel is what you'll need to make quick, neat recoveries, and to pry up rocks. Since you don't have to cut plugs, holes can be filled in with little trouble. Make sure you have a strong apron, because you'll be carrying your weight in iron the first time out.
If you haven't been repulsed by any of this by now, you might just have farmfield relic hunting running through your veins. Personally, I have not hunted sites more peaceful or pastoral than these wide-open expanses of pristine soil. Everyone has their own detecting preferences. Give me a ploughed field, the warm sun, and a handful relics any day.
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