Metal Detecting: The “2-Hour Rule” That Takes “Treasure Out of Trash!”

Dorian Cook, Veteran Metal Detectorist
Author Dorian Cook, Veteran Metal Detectorist

All of us encounter metal detecting sites that contain heavy amounts of metal trash beneath their surface.  The amount of trash signals present vary greatly from site to site depending on how long it saw use and what occurred on that site in the way of activities by the people who once occupied it.   For example, I have a late 1700’s house site permission that once had a stone structure on it that was occupied continuously from the time it was built until almost the time it was torn down sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s.   Unfortunately, when it is detected, I do not just have to contend with just numerous old pieces of iron in the form of square nails, broken pieces of cast iron cookware, worn out pieces of horseshoes, etc. typical to a house of that period which was gone or abandoned by the time aluminum cans and pull tabs were invented.  No, indeed… this site has the most aluminum pieces of junk on it I have ever encountered on any site!

Were it a “normal” situation where modern living had left two or three dozen pull tabs and some pieces of “can slaw” to be dug and removed from further interference from what was once the lawn area around the house, I would have gotten that done and been pulling some really nice old coins from there by now.  But… this site has proved to have a yard that is almost literally “paved” with pull tabs and seemingly un-ending pieces of aluminum can slaw.

The last “Appalachians” to have lived there had beyond serious drinking problems and trash disposal issues as well, as they left literally hundreds of pull tabs and pieces of beer can slaw routinely cut up by their lawn mowing scattered all over the yard, front and back!    Not counting the numerous pieces of can slaw, which number in the many dozens, I have dug over 100 aluminum pull tabs off this site and have not even made a dent in the number of pull-tab signals that are still left to be dealt with.    

I have attempted to metal detect this house site 3 or 4 times so far and have yet to find even a single coin of any date.  But… that being said, I have not yet used my “2-Hour Rule” that has turned “defeat into victory” for me on numerous occasions over the years when detecting old trashy house sites. 

What is the “2-Hour Rule?” of Metal Detecting

Let me share that rule with you with another example of how when I used it for the very first time, it resulted in my greatest day ever of single silver coin finds combined with old pennies and nickels and gold and silver jewelry to boot! From that great day on, I applied it to every trashy site I detected and I started to get many old and silver coins out of them I had been previously missing.  The rule will become apparent as I tell that story. 

I have always had a keen interest in the military history of our country and when I read about the worst defeat of a U.S. Army force that ever occurred on our own soil and that the site was within driving distance of my own home… well… I just had to go see if I could do some relic hunting there. 

It all began when General George Washington put General Arthur St. Clair, who had served in the Revolutionary War, in charge of raising a large army composed of regular U.S. Army soldiers and rough-cut Kentucky Militiamen to subdue the hostile indigenous Native Americans in the Ohio Territory, once and for all.   The challenge proved very daunting to St. Clair who spent most of a year at Ft. Washington, in what is now Cincinnati, trying to acquire the necessary number of soldiers and the large amounts of supplies they would need for the campaign.  As the year waxed later and later and approaching winter was giving the first distinct warnings of unfavorable weather for campaigning to come, General St. Clair made a foolish decision.  He chose to start the campaign against the hostiles with only about half of the soldiers and even a lower percentage of the supplies they would need to have any hope of being successful in their mission.

This ultimately resulted in that mission not only failing, but it got over 800 of the 1200 men in his army slain in battle during a surprise attack by over 3000 of their enemies. This army, for the most part, did not fight well in that battle, some of the soldiers just cowering behind trees in fear and confusion… not attempting to defend themselves… until the marauding hostiles got to them and tomahawked them.  The portion of the army that escaped death left a trail of frozen bodies of the wounded who died in the bitter temperatures and fresh fallen snow all the way back to Ft. Washington after they fled the battlefield.

My goals for my first ever detecting mission to what is now Ft. Recovery, Ohio on the Wasbash River was to find a piece of this most historically significant battlefield that I could metal detect and to recover a few of the fired musket balls from it for their historical value… not for any monetary value which would only have been a few dollars per artifact.  Back then satellite maps were not yet easily available on the internet so I failed to research the battle site well enough to know what was the general condition and use of the land at the time before I went there.  This led to a huge disappointment when I arrived at the town of Ft. Recovery only to discover that the downtown area was built right on top of St. Clair’s camp where the battle had been fought!   I drove around the perimeter of the town but found no huntable areas and was about ready to go back home in defeat, myself.  True, the hostiles charged across the Wabash River bottom in front of the high ground where St. Clair placed his camp, but any artifacts lost there, like musket balls, had long disappeared under feet of river bottom silt build-up from the frequent floods there over the many intervening years.

So… like General St. Clair… it seemed that I too was to suffer a “defeat” at the same place he did.  As I drove back down the main street through town, however, with its wall-to-wall buildings on both sides of the street, thinking about all the artifacts now buried under those buildings, about halfway through town I spotted a corner large lot that was bare dirt, having just been bulldozed a day or two before.  I assumed a building had been torn down and it turned out that it had been the site of an old church.  I got lucky and found the owner of the lot right away… he was the proprietor of the store just across the street from the site.  He was a friendly fellow and granted me permission to detect right away and told me I could keep what I found.  All of a sudden, it was looking like I was going to “pull victory from the jaws of defeat!”

Realizing that this lot was right in the middle of what was once the battlefield, I was sure that there would be fired musket balls in that fresh dirt and so my hopes soared, indeed!   I got my metal detector out of my truck and started swinging across the dirt.  While I expected some metal trash to be in the soil I was not prepared for how much there was!  The nail and other iron and aluminum trash signals were just a few inches apart all over that lot!  Because I had driven so far, however, and hated so badly to go home with no finds from the battle, I gritted my teeth, and just kept working that site back and forth, covering it all two or three times in the first two hours of metal detecting… with not a single good find to show for my efforts!  My restored hopes now plummeted again and thoughts of giving up and going home empty-handed crossed my mind. I mean, after all, I had given this search two full hours with nothing to show for it and I had many years of metal detecting experience under my belt already at that time.

 two hours of metal detecting
Not one good find the first two hours of metal detecting but all this found in the next four hours at the Ft. Recovery, OH site… including 34 silver coins.

During those first two hours, I had been looking for good, solid, and repeatable hits on my metal detector as I did not have time to dig the hundreds of pieces of metal trash I was hearing.  Most detectorists today, would have given up on that site after the first 15 minutes of detecting with no good finds.   While I was tempted to do that, I did not, thinking that sooner or later I would pop a good target.   So… by the time I hit the 2-hour mark, I had had enough time on the site to notice that there was a pattern of “iffy” signals in the dirt that sounded partly good but mostly bad.  Up till then, I had been classifying all of them as trash and not digging any of them.  Just as I was deciding to give up, I got another one of those “iffy” signals and decided to dig it just to see what kind of metal trash it was.  

Imagine my surprise when I popped out a Mercury Dime!   It was not one of the musket balls I was seeking but… hey… a silver dime is a good find on any site you metal detect!   I decided to go back and dig more of those “iffy” signals to see if my dime was a fluke or if there could be more like it.   To my amazement, over half of these signals proved to be old copper, nickel and silver coins, pieces of gold and silver jewelry which included a gold ring and two gold and one silver crucifixes with loops for wearing around the neck on a chain, a store token, a bronze medal, and… most importantly to me… fired musket balls… 5 of them to be exact!   I spent the rest of the day having a ball detecting and recovering over 60 coins and other good finds from a site I first thought was hopeless.   That is how I learned the “2-Hour Rule of metal detecting which turned total “detecting defeat” into a record-breaking day of success!  I hardly noticed the long drive home with my “high” I was on from such wonderful success with my metal detector.  Not only did I have the fired musket balls from the battle that I came to find, I also had 32 silver coins, found and dug one at a time, plus the other good finds I mentioned… what a bonus! 

musket balls metal detecting
Among the author’s great finds were these five musket balls from St. Clair’s Defeat battle. The smallest one is from a soldier’s or Kentucky Militiaman’s rifle while the other four came from the attackers.  The biggest one was fired from a .74 caliber, British-made, “Brown Bess” musket the Brits furnished to the Native Americans.

The conclusion of this matter is this… most of us don’t go out and metal detect for hours and hours at a time every day of the week.   The busy pace of life these days often only allows for an hour or two of metal detecting a week only a very few times per month.  We therefore never develop the “razor’s edge” of skill with our metal detectors that those who hunt often and put in long hours do.  What I discovered is that it takes a minimum of 2 hours to “warm up” your metal detecting skills that have been on the shelf for days or weeks, so to speak, because you did not have the time to get out and use your detector.  It also takes that first 2 hours of detecting to begin to adapt to what I call the “personality” of any detecting site.   That “personality” is made up of soil content, amount of mineralization present, the amount of and kinds of metal objects beneath its surface, and their depth. It also includes factors like does it contain large amounts of charcoal and ashes from a burned structure, are the trash metal objects on it old only or do they contain more modern objects from recent habitation such as pull tabs and can slaw.  And… as mentioned above… are their patterns to the metal signals you are getting that might indicate good finds will not, for the most part, be clear and repeatable due to the proximity of trash metal close to them.   I have found that in most cases, I will NOT do much good the first two hours on any site heavy with metal trash on it.  Any good finds I make on those sites usually, with rare exceptions, come in the next four hours I spend detecting… AFTER… I have spent the first 2-Hours refreshing my metal detecting skills and learning to “read” the site I am on. 

Metal Detecting Historic Jewlery
Here are the gold and silver non-coin items that came off the Ft. Recovery site including a bronzed medal for a Native American Convention held there in the early 1900’s. The small gold ring has a ruby set in it. The thimble is sterling silver.

So… the “bottomline” on the 2-Hour Rule is that if you never get out and spend 6 to 8 hours at a time on a potentially good site with a lot of metal signals on it you are robbing yourself of some great finds.  Start considering the first two hours you spend on potentially good sites as a necessary part of success on that site and don’t be dismayed if you find nothing good those first two hours.  If you are someone who gives up after just 15 minutes with no good finds on a site then maybe metal detecting is not the hobby you should be pursuing.    This “2-Hour Rule” technique works much of the time, as you will discover for yourself if you use it… but… it works better for those who DO NOT TRY TO DIG EVERY SIGNAL that is clearly small iron objects like wire or nails.   Sure, if you dig every signal, eventually you will dig something good on a site but why waste your time digging hundreds of nails to get a very few good finds when you will find more in the long-run on old sites by bypassing them and going for higher-value signals.  I include pictures of my record finds on that trashy site at St. Clairs Defeat to show you what is possible, using the “2-Hour Rule” of metal detecting.

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