Lessons from Metal Detecting an Old Dump Site

In February, three of us set out to metal detect at a ranch site. The area where the home once stood didn’t yield any significant finds initially. The first item we discovered was the top of a hammer, leading us to nickname the location “Hammer Ranch” to distinguish it from our other detecting sites. We often use nicknames to keep our locations private and free of identifiable geographic details. The hammer top, likely left behind by kids building tree forts, wasn’t particularly old.

The second find, also not old, was a Zippo lighter that made us all laugh. See the photos below to see why. Both the hammer and the Zippo were found near the house location.

Discovering an Old Dump a Journey of Six Months and Countless Finds

Initially, our finds were modest. However, while surveying the surrounding land, I thought to myself, “There must be a dump around here.” Scanning the area, I noticed a slope on the property, which seemed like an ideal place for a dump. I climbed over some vegetation and started detecting.

Within seconds, I found a button with a train on it. Then, I began to see fragments of broken glass with a purple tint and scattered ceramics. The purple color in old glass is due to ultraviolet rays activating the manganese content within the glass. Manganese, commonly used as a decolorizing agent in glass manufacturing before 1914, oxidizes when exposed to sunlight over time, resulting in a purple or amethyst hue.

Realizing we had found an old dump, I called my metal detecting buddies over. We needed to detect this spot. Little did we know that this day would mark the beginning of six months of detecting, going multiple times a week, and making numerous great finds. We tested various techniques, used different detectors, and brought a range of tools. Along the way, we learned a lot, strengthened our friendships, and even made some new friends with the locals.

Within a few trips, we realized the dump site was vast, spanning 1200 feet by 500 feet, and contained both ranching and household items. We deduced that the family or families contributing to the dump were well-off for those times, which we estimated to be the late 1800s to 1920s. They were well-traveled and hardworking. This educated guess came from the patent dates on jewelry we found, dating buttons, monogrammed silverware, foreign coins, and home decor items such as ornate metal furniture legs.

Metal Detecting Adventures Under the Night Sky

Here’s a photo I took of us metal detecting in the dead of night, equipped with headlamps and battling swarms of mosquitoes. The darkness added a unique challenge to our adventure, but the thrill of the hunt kept us going despite the relentless biting of insects.

Strategies for Dealing with Iron Infestation

We often faced the challenge of iron infestation, dealing with thousands of rusty nails and other rusted items. There are two main approaches:

  1. Iron Discrimination: Turn on Iron Discrimination on your metal detector and be selective about the tones and numbers you dig.
  2. Dig Everything: Dig every signal, which is time-consuming but effective. By removing layers, you can unmask valuable finds that were previously hidden by iron and other junk signals.

One of my detecting partners, who uses a basic Bounty Hunter IV Tracker, excels in relic hunting with this method, yielding impressive finds. Their strategy involves digging up everything and leaving no metal behind. They removed multiple 5-gallon buckets of small iron items and tin cans, which not only cleared the ground but also improved the environmental condition of the soil. Their flexible schedule allowed them to spend extensive time at the dump site, meticulously clearing the area. This dedication led to some remarkable discoveries you can see a small sample below.

The most effective methods of “dig everything” they found involved the following steps:

  1. Excavation and Initial Sorting: Dig a 1-foot square in a high-density area. Use a small handheld hoe to visually remove all broken glass and ceramics.
  2. Artifact Checking: While digging and sorting, check for desirable artifacts such as bottles and bisque dolls, etc. Place all non-desirable fragments into a bucket for disposal.
  3. Iron Removal: Use a mechanics magnet to remove all iron artifacts and fragments. Visually inspect the magnet for valuable items like iron buckles and buttons. Dispose of non-desirable trash into a bucket for proper disposal.
  4. Non-Iron Metal Detection: Use a pinpointer to detect and remove all non-iron metals.
  5. Repeat: Continue this process to thoroughly search the area.

Due to time restrictions, my strategy involved prioritizing high tones, then mid tones, and finally low tones. I also brought multiple detectors, ranging from multi-frequency detectors, Nokta Legend, Minelab Equinox with various coils to my basic analog Mojave Tesoro and Bounty Hunter Legacy 2500. I used different settings on each detector, avoiding reliance on a single setup.

Some days, I worked in “All Metal Mode” until the constant noise became overwhelming, then switched it off to reduce the iron signals. This flexible approach allowed me to adapt to different conditions and improve my chances of finding valuable items. Some of my notable finds included:

The third detectorist adopted a similar approach due to time constraints and the vast area with dense finds, detecting high tones, mid tones, and low tones. They primarily used an XP Deus II and a Minelab Equinox but occasionally brought out their Bounty Hunter Quick Draw II.

Their strategy also included using a magnet and a sifter, getting on their hands and knees, and running a pinpointer on the ground to meticulously search for items. One of their best finds was an 1861 Italian coin, discovered simply by visually spotting it.

These finds highlight the importance of using diverse techniques and equipment to maximize the chances of discovering valuable items. See a small sample of their finds below.

Here are their key takeaways:

  • Magnet Use: Do not dismiss finds obtained with a strong magnet.
  • Frequency Variation: Mix up your detecting frequencies. Don’t stick exclusively to multi-frequency; using single frequency can help uncover more good finds by providing consistent signals you might otherwise miss.
  • Visual Inspection: With a high volume of artifacts, sometimes it’s essential to simply use your eyes to scour the ground slowly, looking for inorganic shapes.
  • Effective Pinpointer: Invest in a good ferrous/non-ferrous pinpointer. 
  • Comfortable Equipment: Use a good kneeling pad, as you’ll be on the ground a lot.

One of my favorite moments with the third detectorist was when they discovered a San Francisco Expo 1915 fob. I could tell they had found something special as they walked over, visibly shaking and struggling to speak. Watching their approach, I thought to myself, “Oh, they found something good,” and I couldn’t help but smile, knowing we would all share in their excitement.

The dump site, located on a slope with dense vegetation and uneven ground, made it impossible to grid properly. As the vegetation grew and considering the high amount of iron present at the site, it became clear that smaller coils were more effective for my detecting style. I rotated between small 6-inch coils, elliptical 9.5-inch coils, and less frequently, 11-inch coils to navigate the challenging terrain and maximize detection efficiency.

For safety reasons, we opted not to use headphones despite their advantage in detecting subtle sounds and yielding good finds. The dump site was located in an area frequented by mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and coyotes, so it was crucial for us to stay alert to our surroundings at all times.

Nokta AccuPOINT Ideal for Iron Infested Sites

Two of the three of us invested in Nokta AccuPOINT pinpointers due to their exceptional ability to distinguish between ferrous and non-ferrous materials, allowing us to focus on non-ferrous tones. Both found that setting the AccuPOINT to Sensitivity 3 was perfect for the dump site. Although I haven’t purchased one yet, after witnessing its impressive performance at the Hammer Ranch Dump site, I am definitely adding one to my personal toolkit. I highly recommend the Nokta AccuPOINT as an excellent pinpointer for anyone looking to enhance their metal detecting experience.

Lacking Traditional Research Data, from Lidar to Sanborn Maps

One major challenge we faced was the lack of detailed data on the property. We were unable to find Lidar maps, which would have helped us pinpoint specific features such as privies, smokestacks, walls, or other structural details. Additionally, the property was not listed on any Sanborn Maps, which would have provided insight into the original property lines. Despite reviewing all available TopoView Maps from the government archives, no structures were listed.

The only evidence supporting our findings came from two historical aerial photographs, which showed the original layout with buildings, a home, a barn, and three other structures. However, we still haven’t identified the previous owners of the homes, except for speculating based on items found at the dump, such as a silver monogrammed utensil. This item might not have belonged to the property owner but could have been left by a visitor.

We’ve spent countless hours in museums and online, analyzing aerial photos and local portraits to gather clues. I’ve also extensively searched the Library of Congress for any recorded details on the property.

Discovering Lucrative Spots for Metal Detecting

This experience further justified my belief that, given the competitive nature of metal detecting and the hobby’s long history, any site found on a historic TopoView Maps and even slightly documented has probably already been detected or scavenged. Therefore, the most lucrative sites are those with little to no documentation. This opens up opportunities to find other such sites by specifically looking for ones lacking documentation. I already have a list of places with limited records that I plan to explore further.

As many experienced metal detectorists would agree, finding lucrative sites for metal detecting doesn’t come easy. Success requires a combination of research tools, building good connections, mastering your metal detecting equipment, and understanding how to read the landscape when on-site.

Interesting Non-Metal Artifacts Found

In addition to the metal items we found using our detectors and pinpointers, we also discovered various other non-metal artifacts. These included clay marbles, a couple of glass marbles, a black glass button, doll parts, and a few intact bottles. See the gallery below.

Next Goals Locating Prives and Other Man-Made Dug Holes

As the Hammer Ranch dump site, yielded fewer finds after six months of detecting, one of the team’s goals became locating the property’s privy or privies. They crafted a bottle probe and began searching in areas where privies are typically found but have yet to discover one. 

Using the bottle probe, we can identify areas we might have missed that could still yield valuable finds. We’ll use the probe throughout the dump site to see if it penetrates the topsoil and subsoil down to the bedrock, aiming to uncover man-made holes that nature has concealed. If the probe brings up some black ash, that’s an even better sign, indicating potential activity in the area. This method should help us locate hidden areas worth further metal detecting, ensuring we don’t overlook any valuable spots.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *