The Phoenix was a mythical bird that caught fire, “crashed and burned” and then, according to legend, arose from its own ashes to live again.
While not about a bird that arose from the ashes, this article is about making gold and silver “arise from the ashes” of burned down and long abandoned old house sites.
Burned down old house or store sites present one of the strongest challenges possible to metal detectorists when it comes to making successful recoveries of objects made of precious metals that were in the structure when it burned. But… that being said… I bear a true witness that it… IS… possible to make some outstanding finds on these sites… with the right approach to searching them.
There is no question that when many houses are destroyed by fire, they create “lost treasures” because the caches, or containers of silver and/or gold coins and jewelry made of the same, disappear from their traditional hiding places in closets, cabinets, drawers, chests, under beds behind mantles and woodwork, in attics and basements. They then come to rest under a thick cover of twisted rubble, burned out appliances and bedsprings, a thick layer of nails that were in the wood the house was constructed of, multiple pieces of metal roofing… all lying on top of a thick layer of charred pieces of wood and inches of ash and charcoal.
The layer of “fire sculpted camouflage” is extremely difficult for emotionally wrought homeowners to overcome when trying to recover valuables known to have been in the structure at the time it burned. For that reason, MUCH of what was lost is never found and ends up being abandoned to the ashes. In the cases where whole families tragically died in those fires, their secrets died with them and either nothing… or very little… in the way of objects of value, were ever recovered from the ashes.
Even knowing in what part of the house site the coins, jewelry, silverware, or whatever valuables should be found was often not enough to assure a complete recovery by the owners. Items made of gold and silver often melted down in the fires… contrary to those who claim housefires do not get hot enough to melt silver and gold coins, etc., I know for an absolute fact that they DO often melt down. Especially if there is serious wind to fan the flames and create a “forge effect” like a blacksmith does with bellows to heat iron to the melting point.
Melted gold and silver will flow downward to the lowest possible point of the house site and thus can “move” several feet or more from their original hiding place like a chest of drawers, etc. The dirt floor of the crawlspace that was underneath a house floor when it burned could be sloped downward to facilitate additional movement of the melted metal. If the house had either a full or partial basement or old stone wall cellar beneath it, you can just about bet some metal items of value will end up there… in a melted or not melted state.
Okay… we have established “probable cause” for old burned down house and structure sites to contain melted precious metals or objects made of them that were lost and never recovered. Now let us consider that rural areas contain the most of these kinds of “treasure sites” waiting to be found and searched.
We have seen now wildfires can wipe out an entire town or sub-division in a very short period of time in recent years. Well, they had wildfires back long before any of us were born or anyone had ever heard of global warming and they burned many homes in rural areas to the ground, often giving the owners little time to do anything but flee if they were lucky. Many, many homes were burned deliberately in rural areas during the Civil War and their owners were often slain without divulging where their valuables were hidden in the house. Rural homes that are often more than a hundred years old continue to burn, even today, to add new such sites to be searched for treasures belonging to those that have been long-gone as well.
The problem with all of these sites… long-gone… or recently burned… is that even with our highly computerized and sophisticated metal detectors, the search of any of these sites can quickly become an “exercise in futility.” Though the house may have been old when it burned, the area it occupied can be practically covered with pieces of metal roofing, burned out appliances, bed springs, metal cabinets, etc. and the rusty nails can be as thick as one or two every square inch of the entire area. Add to that the additional mineralization created by the ashes themselves and you have a metal detectorist’s nightmare!
So… IS THERE any way to overcome these obstacles and recover “treasures out of the ashes?”
There sure is! And with the help of some diagrams, I am going to show you how to do it.
I am going use a successful search and recovery operation that I and a hunt buddy did on an old burned down house site way back in the woods in the central part of Kentucky.
But before I get into how we did our search on this site I want to mention how I got motivated to actually learn how to successfully do searches on old sites like this. I was living in East Texas at the time outside of a small town called Winnsboro. We were about 30 miles from the interstate highway that ran between Dallas and Texarkana. My business required frequent trips to Dallas at the time so I traveled the state highway that led to the Interstate on a regular basis. About halfway to the Interstate, I would pass the ruins of a burned down and abandoned house on a site at the intersection of a small side road. The railroad tracks ran behind it so it had not had much of a yard. The area of the house, itself, contained metal roofing pieces, rusty and scattered around it, burned out appliances, a thick layer of burned charcoal and ashes and looked pretty much like any such site you would see. It had been little more than a shack, maybe 30ft. square, so there was no reason to think such a poor people’s house ruins would contain anything of serious value. I, therefore, wrote off that site as a potential hunt spot. THAT would prove to be a BIG mistake on my part!
For two years, I had driven back and forth past that old burned house site until one day, when I was at home, an old guy that belonged to the same treasure hunting club in Sulphur Springs, Texas that I did, stopped by the house and he was grinning from ear to ear. I knew he had found something good, so I asked him what he had found. He replied, “You know that old burned house site along the state highway by the railroad tracks?” I nodded yes. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a little cloth bag. He then dumped several pieces of gold out on my table that looked a lot like gold nuggets. It turned out that they were five full ounces of melted down gold coins he had found in the ashes of that house… AFTER… he had done what I had not been willing to do… remove the visible metal junk from the site, stacking it in a pile to one side. Think about it… at today’s prices, he had found $10,000 worth of gold!
Would you be willing to spend some hours PREPARING the site for a search by removing the visible metal junk? Well, after seeing the results this fellow got from doing that and learning once and for all the lesson that the size or economic status represented by the house itself, in no way prevents the owners from having caches of valuables inside it, I decided I WAS willing to do the serious amount of work on sites like that necessary in order to find any valuables hiding in the ashes.
And while my searches of same over the years have not yet produced any melted down gold objects, they have produced several pounds of melted silver coins which you will see in the photos with this article and pieces of jewelry, as well.
Now let’s return to that rural burned house site in Central Kentucky, I mentioned, where I found my first “fire-made” pieces of treasure. Here is the backstory that led us to this site. The project began with a solid lead from a rural-based Kentucky law enforcement officer my hunt buddy at the time happened to be friends with. A man since passed away, had told this officer that forty years ago he had, tragically, not only lost his family but also two jars of silver coins with one containing a few gold coins also, in the fire that consumed his frame home set well back in a remote wooded area. Although he had attempted a search through the rubble and ashes, he had not found any trace of the coins mentioned.
My hunt buddy was given specific instructions on how to find the site and we decided that the story had potential for some good recoveries.
When we had secured access to the property, and arrived at the burned down house site, we saw it was full of thick and tall weeds and trees, both large and small. A thick layer of fallen leaves also covered the site. We only easily pinpointed it because of some pieces of rusted roofing metal that were visible on the site and there was a dirt mound that looked like it was not natural… which proved to contain the hearth remains of the main fireplace and just a bit of the brick chimney.
If any good recoveries were going to come from this site, a good bit of work would be required without a doubt. And THAT… is the main rule for successfully finding treasure on burned down house sites… being willing to put in the necessary work effort to make a thorough search of the site possible.
The first thing we had to do upon arrival on this site was what I call Step #1:
- PRELIMINARY SITE INVESTIGATION (PSI): We walked around the site until we found the traces of the gravel driveway that allowed us to determine how the front of the house faced. Once we knew what direction the front faced, we determined the general area where the bedrooms likely would have been, along the back side of the site. There were bedsprings visible, but they did not appear to be in the original place they would have been after the fire so their current position could not be depended on to indicate the bedroom areas. This is an important part of preparing to hunt a burned site as the bedroom areas in the ashes were the most likely to contain lost valuables beneath them. The kitchen area would be determined later, as we cleaned the site, by the presence of pieces of plates and glassware in the ashes and broken old Mason Jars that once contained canned food. The kitchen location would be a secondary target of our PSI because people often would hide valuables like jars of coins in the back of the food pantry or jewelry in a ceramic cookie jar, for example.
Once our preliminary investigation work was done, We would proceed to Step #2 which was:
- VISIBLE DEBRIS REMOVAL (VDR): We would first have to cut down to the ground the weeds covering the house site with a weedeater we brought with us. We would also remove the scattered pieces of old metal roofing as we came to them, as well as the two sets of metal bedsprings that became visible as we progressed. Small saplings with interfering branches would be cut down with pruners brought for that purpose. Once all of that was completed, we would next CAREFULLY remove the thick layer of cut-down weeds and old fallen leaves covering the ashes by raking them off with light strokes using leaf rakes. Care has to be taken during this step not to rake too deeply to where you are raking off charcoal and ash layer that may contain small items like scattered coins or jewelry. You do NOT want to inadvertently move any valuables OUTSIDE the boundaries of the area occupied by the house itself before you have completed your search for them. Any pieces of charred boards or other lumber uncovered by the raking process would also be removed. Once all organic debris is raked back until the edges of the burned area can clearly be seen. (NOTE: If the house site is really old, the ash and charcoal layer may have completely turned into very dark… near black… soil… differing in color to the surrounding soil outside the perimeter of the house.), the outline of the house can be determined.
Once this is completed, we move to Step #3.
- DEFINING SITE BOUNDARIES (DSB): Once the edges of the burned area have been clearly defined on all four sides, they can be marked with upside-down fluorescent marking spray paint for quick reference at any time in the search. (See Diagram Below) If any indications of where interior walls were on the site are seen, they should be defined with the marking paint also, as should any interior doorways that can be located. On this site, it only took a minute of digging into the dirt mound to know that it had been the fireplace and chimney. In the case of this site, the ash and charcoal had long since turned into black soil.
Once we had completed Step #3 and had defined the area the house had once occupied we were ready to move to Step #4.
- STEEL RAKE EXAMINATION (SRE): For this we use a heavy steel rake with short vertical times to disturb the first two or three inches of the floor area of the house. By loosening up those first inches, a lot of things will become visible to helps us further define the layout of the rooms. We don’t rake anything off the site or to the side in this step… we use short back and forth strokes that penetrate the ash, charcoal or dark soil and expose anything in the soil not visible on the surface. On the site shown in my diagrams, we started this raking in a back corner and quickly saw the rusty nails exposed were as thick as expected and… they were a mixture of both modern round and very old square nails. This told us the house dated back to the later 1800’s but was lived in up until the time it burned and was either repaired or added on to as time went by. Right away, to our delight, I might add, we raked up a silver war nickel and… a silver class ring! Remains of hand tools, nuts and bolts, cabinet hinges and handles, numerous Mason Jar lids and related pieces of broken and/or melted glass, old pieces of plates, cups and saucers and and eating and cooking utensils assured us we had started our steel rake search in the kitchen. The locations of our finds also told us where the sink, the pantry, the cabinets and the and tool drawer, typical to so many kitchens, even still today, had been located. This site was definitely starting to give up its secrets!
It was there in the kitchen area that I got quite a surprise… As I raked where some of the cabinets obviously had been, I uncovered a Prince Albert Tobacco Can with the lid intact and closed. Knowing that these cans were often used by the farm folks to keep coins in, I picked it out of the dirt with anticipation. It was heavy and when I shook it a little, it gave off a satisfying rattle of multiple metal objects banging against the sides of the can. At that point, I was sure I had found a coin cache. Before I could pry up the lid, however, the bottom of the rusty can gave way and out on the ground poured about a hundred little brass lock nuts. Unusual… yes. Treasure… no.
As we finished exploring the kitchen and progressed on through the house with our raking, we added a number of other interesting finds to our collection and were able to also confirm the locations of the living room, dining room, and bedrooms on the site. The “bathroom” would have been an outhouse sitting downwind on the property a hundred feet or so.
On the right side of the house in the area of what was once the dining room in the back right corner, we found many pieces of partially melted and broken fancy plates and realized that a China Cabinet had once stood there. Front door hinges and melted knick-knacks and pieces of ornamental glass items confirmed the living room was on the left front side of the house where the fireplace remains were.
By the process of elimination, we then knew for sure that the 2 bedrooms had been where the two sets of bedsprings were lying. Raking the back two left areas of the house site, we recovered pieces of costume jewelry and ornate small buckles associated with women’s clothing further confirming the location of the bedrooms. I should mention that the steel raking process also turned up numerous other pieces of junk metal such as curtain rods and miscellaneous pieces that by removing, increased our chances of detecting valuables on the house site. The clearing of the house site and steel raking had taken two of us four hours to complete and now we were finally ready to use our metal detectors.
Even after all the work put into clearing and defining the house site, we could not use our metal detectors in the standard way to search it. There were just too many nails, too close together, to put the coil down on the dirt surface and try to get good signals. The detector we used for the search was the Garrett G.T.A. 1000 with an 8” Crossfire searchcoil.
Reasoning that the silver coins lost in the fire would should be located in one spot rather than scattered and thus give a strong signal due to their concentration, I raised the coil 12 inches off the ground where the nails could not cancel out any signal from the coins and started scanning. My hopes were that the massed coins would give off a big enough signal to be detected by the coil a foot above them. I would not be disappointed in those hopes.
I felt fairly sure that the lost coins would in either the kitchen or one of the bedroom areas but just to be sure, we decided to check every room, saving the bedrooms for last. We started with the kitchen and found nothing… same for the dining and living rooms and the remains of the fireplace and chimney. The middle bedroom also produced nothing and we had almost searched the corner bedroom with the same lack of results when the metal detector finally gave off a strong “belltone” signal along the very back wall. The target I.D. cursor locked on the Silver Dollar indicator and would not move from that position as I passed the coil back and forth over the signal. Well… YES… and no. Three inches below the top layer of burned soil lay a 12-ounce glob of melted silver coins! Clearing the loose soil with all the nails in it from around that hole, I was able to put the searchcoil closer to the dirt without it “blanking-out” from too many iron signals below it. The metal detector gave two more indications of targets in the silver range, and both were also pieces made from multiple melted silver coins… but much smaller in size… weighing only an ounce or two apiece.
A full quart jar of silver coins can weigh up to 13 lbs… and not less than ten… depending on the size of the silver coins. Dimes pack together with less space between them than the bigger silver coins so a jar of dimes would weigh more than a jar of silver dollars, for example. Being able to only find a little more than a pound of melted silver coins and no melted gold ones, was a clear indication that the majority of the silver… and possibly all of the gold… had been found previously by someone right after the fire, besides the surviving property owner. It was long gone as the area of the house where we found our share of that silver had shown absolutely no signs of having been disturbed by anyone searching in recent years. No doubt, the old fellow had told others about his loss in the fire and they, unbeknownst to him, had done their own search of the ashes.
There is one more technique for recovering precious metals, coins and jewelry from burned down house sites that I want to mention… Call it Step #5, if you will.
- SIFT THE SITE (STS): The most effective way to be sure you got all the treasure there is from a burned down house site is to sift the ashes/soil through a sifting screen made of 2 X 4’s and ¼” hardware cloth. This basically turns your recovery efforts into an “archaeological dig” and the amount of labor required to hunt the site this way is for those still youthful in body and having calloused hands from hard work. You should start in the most likely spots in the bedroom areas and progress from there. If you do this, be sure to dig down to where the soil changes from fire-burned black to normal soil color to be sure you get anything like heavy melted gold and silver that ALWAYS goes as deep as it can while in a liquid state.
Whether or not you find treasure on burned down house sites is NOT so much a matter of IF… as WHEN. The more of these sites, you search, the more treasure you will find. Each time you do a new one, it increases your odds of making major finds. Even coin hunters do not make a lot of coin recoveries every time they go to a park, for example. I have hunted many a park in my time and some hunts produced little or nothing while others blessed me with multiple old silver and copper coin and jewelry finds. That is just the way it is in the life and hunts of successful detectorists… no matter what kind of sites you choose to hunt. Those who PERSEVERE find… those who get discouraged easily and quit don’t.
One word of caution about hunting burned down house or store sites… SKIP any burned down hardware or old country store site you find, unless you are willing to sift the whole site. Just think about all the nails, nuts and bolts and small and large metal items that you would have to contend with. I have a known country store site that had a cellar under it. The owner told others he lost a Mason jar of gold coins in the fire that destroyed it. The farmer who bought the property filled in the cellar with a dozer so that gold is about 8’ down, if it is still there. I have searched the surface of where it stood but only a couple of silver dimes turned up so far.
On that site, it would take a backhoe to dig out that cellar to recover any gold or silver at the bottom of it… a lot of time and expense… IF… permission could be obtained. So… I will pass on that one and look for burned down house sites that only had a crawlspace under them, at most. I am not afraid of hard work… just can’t do as much of it as I used to in my younger years, so… I will pick my hunt sites carefully and make sure that they offer the best odds of great recoveries without exhausting amounts of effort being required to make them produce. In conclusion… remember… CHOOSING good sites to hunt is every bit as… or more… important than the metal detector you choose and the technique you use to prepare the site for a thorough search. Get all three of those right… and you WILL make great finds!
CAUTIONARY NOTE… You should never venture into a partially burned structure with any portions of the roof still over the floor or if the house has partially collapsed brick or stone… or even wood… walls. If brick, stone, or wood walls have collapsed inwards, and cover much of the floor area, the amount of work to remove all that collapsed masonry/wood and shore up any remaining portions of the walls to prevent more from falling on you, is just too great to be worth the effort unless you have strong reason to believe that valuables worth hundreds of thousands or more were lost in the fire and not recovered. I only hunt burned down house sites where there are no walls standing at all and the structure was wood that basically all burned to ashes and charcoal. I would suggest that you would be wise to make that your policy also. Safety is a precious gift that a wise metal detectorist gives themselves.
Dorian Cook is a native of Huntington, West Virginia, and spent the greater part of his childhood growing up in the Appalachian Foothills near the small town of St. Albans. From age 10 to 17 much of his time was spent exploring those foothills and the old cabin ruins they contained, as well as fishing and trapping along the Coal River.
After graduation from St. Alban’s High School in 1965 he moved to Dallas, Texas, acquired landscape design and construction skills and started his own business which he maintained for 44 years. During the eighteen years spent in Texas he became involved in Civil War artifact rescue activities in which he discovered Civil War campsites and battlegrounds previously lost to history. To date, he has found and recovered over fourteen thousand Civil War artifacts from over 140 sites in 22 states… the majority of which now reside in museums from Texas to Cincinnati. He also spent nearly four years as the marketing and advertising manager for Garrett Metal Detectors. In addition, his responsibilities included field testing new metal detection equipment as it was developed by the company.
His travels in pursuit of nearly every aspect of treasure hunting, prospecting, and metal detecting have taken him to historical locations in 42 of the United States and six foreign countries, as well. He has participated in official archaeological excavations for the state of Texas Antiquities Commission and the nation of Israel’s Israeli Antiquities Authority. Recently, he located the actual battle site of the Kentucky Militia’s defeat at the famous Battle of Blue Licks (which the historians had marked in the wrong place in the Blue Licks State Park) in what is often called “The last battle of the Revolutionary War.”
He is the author of five books on Kentucky’s pioneer and Civil War history, as well as over 200 articles published in various metal detecting related magazines.
His love of discovering “the lost and the hidden” and his extensive field experience in searching for the same for the past forty-four years has led him into Bible-related archaeological explorations in Israel and Egypt and similar American history-related projects all across the United States, as well. These numerous experiences have helped hone his “History Detective” skills to a “sharp edge.” One of the main goals in all his journalistic efforts and public presentations is to pass on as many of those skills as possible to his readers.
He currently resides with his wife, on a small farm in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northeastern Kentucky and remains active in metal detecting historical sites and sponsoring a Civil War history and relic hunting group on social media.