Tips for Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Part 1

I truly love to metal detect old housesites and over the past 5 decades I have done a lot of them.  A fair number of those have been quite good to me, yielding up a quantity of really old coins, lots of old artifacts from about all periods of American history…  and… some nice pieces of gold and silver jewelry.  A rare few have even give up jars of old coins hidden at a time in history when most American’s “banks” were Mason Jars buried somewhere in the soil around the house yard or under a posthole in a pasture fence.

There were… and still are… times when some old house sites absolutely refuse to yield up any of their buried secrets or treasures on a particular day and I go home with nothing but some scrap metal trash I dug out of the ground.   When that occurs, I concede that round to the house site but am already planning to return for a “re-match.”   As the years have gone by, experience in taking on these old sites and winning has increased and this has meant that more times than not… I go home the triumphant instead of the house site. 

If I knew the one sure way to make great discoveries every single time that someone detects a house site, I would tell you, but I don’t.   Hey… wait a minute… you there… yes… you… the one heading for the door… don’t leave yet… cause that was just the bad news… come back here and hear the good news!

What’s the “good news?”  The good news is that I have learned a bunch of great things about hunting old house sites that I am going to share with both “newbies” to metal detecting and… you grizzled old, “battle-scarred” veterans of the “detecting wars,” as well!

These “factoids” and tips and tricks and “don’t do’s” I am about to share if you pay attention… and learn from them, can make a huge positive difference in your success-to-failure ratio when you detect old house sites in the future. 

First, you there… yes… the big fellow standing by the door… lock it and if anyone tries to leave before I am done here, give them your most menacing scowl and shake your head back and forth in an intimidating “no” motion.  Nothing better for a presenter than a “captive” audience!

Old House Sites Fall Into Two Main Categories

Okay… let’s get started! Old house sites fall into two main categories… those where all the structures… house, barns, outbuildings, etc… are all gone… and those where at least the main house is still standing.  

Also fairly frequently encountered on the oldest homesites will be the circumstance that they contain the sites of one or more previously built house structures besides the main one you are focusing on.  Fairly common, also, will be sites where the old house was torn down first and the new one built on top of the exact site of the old one.  When that has occurred, the detectorist may not know it at first, and expecting to encounter coins and artifacts from a known house built in say… 1850… he/she encounters much older finds dating back to the 1700’s when the original house/log cabin was constructed. 

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #1

Always assume the possibility that any homesite you hunt, whether a house still stands on it or not, may also contain metal finds from a much earlier structure(s) that your research did not turn up any info on.   Under normal conditions, the coins and other good finds will logically be deeper than those found from the last structure to be built on the site. 

Since it is a fact that permissions to hunt old homesites where the structures no longer exist are easier to come by than for old houses still standing, the average detectorist will probably end up hunting three or four “long-gone” house sites to every one that still has the house standing on it. 

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #2

If you are relatively new to metal detecting, I am going to advise you to avoid the homesites where the structures are all gone… until… you get at least 100 hours of experience on the metal detector you are using.   The reason why is simple and logical… any homesite where the buildings have rotted down and collapsed and then been cleaned up and hauled off, will have the nails used in the construction of it scattered all over the site. This means that the metal targets you will encounter are much closer together than at a standing house site where the nails… are still in the house and not… in the ground.   The closer the metal targets are to each other, the harder it is for a new detectorist to do well.  While a newbie may find a few things on such a site, I have seen it proven over-and-over again, that they will miss most of the good finds on such a site.  Houses still standing are much better places for a “newbie” to learn his detector without getting overwhelmed by all the trash metal signals routinely found at sites where the house is gone. 

Typical finds the author, Dorian Cook, has uncovered by metal detecting old house sites in the last 50 years.

Let me give you a personal example:  One time I had been sent a new detector by a metal detector company to field test it and then write a report on its performance on sites previously detected by others.  As it happened, I had the perfect old house site just down the rural road I lived on a few miles.  The only thing left of this circa 1850s house was a stone chimney, and a low stone wall running across the front of the property.   This site was plainly visible from the well-traveled highway with no other visible houses within sight in any direction.  The property was not posted so over the years, many metal detectorists had gone over it with about every kind and brand of metal detector available at the time. 

I reasoned that if I could pull out any old coins that all those other detectorists had missed there, it would be a good indication that this new detector I was testing had real potential.

So… I loaded up the metal detector and shovel and drove to the old homessite.  When I arrived, there was another car in the parking area and a tall young fellow in his 20s was walking back to the car carrying a top-of-the-line new Whites Metal Detector.  He was putting his detector in the trunk of his car as I was taking mine out of the back of my truck. 

When he saw that I was going to detect on the old house site, he said to me…. “You’re too late… I just spent 2 hours detecting it and didn’t find anything. It’s been cleaned out.”

I answered him by telling him that since I had gone to the trouble to drive out there I thought I would go ahead and give it a try anyway. 

Since the guy had bright red hair, I am going to call him “Red” for the rest of this account.  Red closed the trunk lid on his car and followed me over to the house site near where the old stone chimney was still standing.  He had kind of a smug, smirk on his face as he watched me swing my metal detector… kind of an “I told you so!” look, if you know what I mean.

What I was doing for that first 10 minutes was getting “the feel” of the site… how thick were the trash metal signals and how close were they together and how much soil mineralization had occurred when the old house had burned many years ago, etc.  I was NOT concentrating on FINDING coins during this time as much as GETTING READY to find any coins thereby first familiarizing myself with the conditions of the site. Red, being brand new to metal detecting did not know this so he thought my failure to get any coin signals was because none were there. 

Well, unexpectedly for me, as I planned to spend at least a half-hour getting to know the site, in just 10 minutes of searching I got a good signal on my metal detector and the kid’s expression changed to a worried look.   I dug and recovered the target and it proved to be an 1892 Indianhead Penny.  Red was NOT happy with seeing me find that coin… profanity issued forth from his mouth and now he had a positively angry look on his face.

It did not improve any when almost immediately I got another coin signal and popped a nice 1887 Indianhead…  more expletives from Red and increased anger. 

Surprisingly the 1800s coins just kept coming!  Next was an 1895 Barber quarter in excellent condition… then…  my first ever Seated Liberty Dime dated 1857.  Red almost went ballistic when he saw I had found silver!  After that… another Indianhead dated 1898.  That was followed by an 1896 Barber Dime and then a very nice 1852 Seated Half Dime.   By then, a solid stream of profanity was issuing forth from Red and his face and neck were literally bright red with anger over my success.  I found another nice Indianhead dated 1879 and Red completely lost it.   I had just dug 8 – 1800’s coins off the old house site in just one hour of hunting when he had found nothing in two hours of hunting and he could not take it! 

I was sick and tired of his ongoing tirade, however, so I turned to him and said.  “Instead of cussing me for succeeding where you failed, you ought to be feeling grateful for getting a chance to find out how good you are NOT with a metal detector and how much you are missing. You could have asked me to show you how to use yours and I would have.”  

Eight – 1800s coins found by the Dorian Cook, the author in just an hour on an old long-gone house site that had previously been detected many times by others.

I am sorry to say, there was no way to reach this foolish young man.  He told me where to go and how to get there, as they say, and stormed off to his car.  He left about half the rubber on his tires on the pavement as he peeled out of the house site parking area in a cloud of noise and burnt rubber smoke.

The lesson here is VERY clear so all you newbies, listen up…  It is NOT EASY to find coins on old long-gone house sites if you are new to metal detecting… especially on sites that had already been hunted many times by others.  I made it look easy on this site because I had thousands of hours of experience with metal detectors.   Your time will come when you can do that also but… not for a while… you NEED time and experience on your detector and no one can give that to you… but you!   So… try to stick to house sites that are still standing for a while and after you have become well experienced with your metal detector, take on the long-gone sites with more metal trash in the ground to contend with and you will be successful at finding coins others missed on them, too. 

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #3

If you are new to metal detecting, do NOT be resentful over someone being able to find more than you do on old house sites… especially those with a lot of junk metal signals in the ground.  Make a friend of them and get them to show you how they do it.  You will get to where you find more on the old house sites like they do by copying their successful detecting skills.  If you hunt with a buddy, pick someone who IS better than you at detecting.  Sure, they will find more coins/relics on a site than you do, with rare exceptions, when you first start hunting together.  That is just normal to be expected.  But as time goes by, you will discover that the difference in the amount of good finds between you and your partner gets smaller and smaller as you become more skillful sooner than you would have by hunting with them instead of on your own or with someone that was as new to detecting as you are. 

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #4

How long a house stood and was actually lived in before becoming gone is a big factor in how difficult it will be to find old coins and relics on the site.  Also… the kind of people who lived there is often a big factor in this regard.  Example:  Recently, a detecting buddy got us permission to hunt an old 1850s farmhouse with a big yard from the farmer who had lived there for several decades. These types of old house situations normally are good for producing a number of nice old coins and other keepers like gold and silver rings so we were excited and expecting some great finds.  When we hit the yard and started detecting we got an ugly surprise.  The guy who lived there was a Mt. Dew soda addict… like a chain smoker… he always had an open one in his hand when he came out to talk to us.   Healthwise, that was very bad for him but it would have been for us if… IF… he had not been a person who just threw his empty soda cans out in the yard and just mowed right over them or stepped on them to crush them and just let them lay.  My partner and I first cleaned the yard of all those we could see on the surface.   When we started hunting, however, we immediately learned that he had been doing that for probably 20 years or more.  That lawn was “carpeted” just beneath the surface with crushed aluminum cans and uncountable pieces of “can slaw” and pull tabs resulting from all the cans he had run over with his riding mower over the years.  We pulled out over 100 aluminum cans and at least that many pieces of can slaw and tabs without ever finding a single coin! And… it seemed there was as still as much aluminum junk in the soil as when we started… we had not made a dent in this old… but thoroughly modern metal trash polluted house site!    We finally had to admit defeat on that old house, even though it was right in the middle of major Civil War activity and was over 160 years old and the owner had told us it had never been detected in the 30-plus years he had owned it.  But… that is NOT the rule on old houses… it is the OCCASIONAL exception.

By comparison, I have an old log cabin site in a soybean field that I hunt that was built in the 1780s and was gone by 1850. There is NO modern metal trash of any kind on the site except maybe a rare lost tractor bolt or a soda can thrown from a tractor while plowing or planting the field.  It continues to yield buttons and great coins for me and great artifacts like 2 silver thimbles and a small sterling silver snuff spoon, when I hunt it… the oldest coin so far being an 1819 large cent.  There, ANY signal I get… be it iron or non-ferrous has a 95% chance of being very old.  Those kinds of old house sites are my favorite to hunt as they surely will be yours also.

On another old long-gone house site in a pasture that was built of stone and used as a tavern in the late 1700s and holds the promise of some possibly rare and REALLY old coins, detecting it is a big problem because it was not torn down until the 1970s and the last residents were serious alcoholics that threw their beer cans and pull tabs out into the yard.  They too, like the Mt. Dew guy “carpeted” the lawn area for 150 feet around the house site with crushed aluminum cans.  A lot of those got cut up into can slaw and after the house was gone, the farmers scattered the trash metal even farther out by plowing and planting the old house site for many years. 

Knowing its potential for rare coins, however, my hunt buddies and I have hit the site over and over trying to clean it of the aluminum trash in the ground and have been unsuccessful… so far.  We have taken trash bags of cans… whole and cut up… and HUNDREDS of pull tabs from the site and still… it is loaded with metal trash hiding the old coins.  We got one 1863 2-cent piece off the site so far and that is the ONLY coin we have found… a real “teaser” as to what kind of coins to expect there.   We will keep working it and eventually we WILL get past the aluminum trash and make that site give up its secrets.  If it were not so old, I would just move on to other old house sites and forget that one.  I KNOW that there are very old coins there that no one else has ever gotten yet.  

Metal Detecting Old Homesites – Tip #5

Veteran detectorists will tell others to hunt heavily metal trashed house sites with very small search coils and with the sensitivity on your detector turned way down. That is not always good advice and needs to be qualified.  What I do on those sites is first hunt them with my regular 11 by 8.5 inch searchcoil on full sensitivity and in all metal mode so that I hear the iron signals and the higher-pitched non-ferrous target signals.  I completely cover the site this way before making any adjustments.  I then, having found what can be found at maximum depth on the site, tune out the iron audio and hunt in discriminate mode set to reject nails and bottlecaps but not aluminum pull tabs that give the same reading as a gold ring or coin.  On this second go at the site with my big coil, I also keep the metal detector set on full sensitivity.  After doing the second sweep of the site this way, I turn the sensitivity down about 35% and keep hunting in discriminate mode.  True I will miss some deep coins in this mode but it will allow me to detect some non-ferrous signals previously “hid” from me by all the chatter from the iron trash in the ground.   AFTER having done these three sweeps of the site with my big searchcoil, then… and only then… will I switch to a smaller coil and sweep the site again.  I generally take the bigger pieces of iron out of the ground and stack them to the side as they are much more likely to be hiding nearby coin signals. 

Recently, I dug a big iron signal out of the ground on an old log cabin site already mentioned above. It proved to be the biggest axe head I had ever found on any kind of a site and I dug it because I kept getting a little “chirp” with the iron signal as I swung my coil back and forth over the target… not a good signal or a high read-out but not your typical iron trash signal either.  With the axehead out of the way, I checked the hole again and my metal detector practically screamed at me with a high pitch tone and a read-out of 91.  I pinpointed the signal with my searchcoil, removed more loose dirt from the hole and a beautiful 1845 large cent presented itself to me! 

A while back I got the opportunity to metal detect an old long-gone 2-story log cabin site on the famous Perryville, KY battlefield that had been in the thick of the fight and then used as a field hospital for the battle’s wounded for several months. It was quite historically famous and called the Sam Bottom House. I had seen pictures of a board from the house with Civil War bullet holes in it.  Later, at some unknown point in history, it was destroyed by fire.  The site was located in a rough pasture on the edge of a steep hill sloping down to a creek.  (See pics) It proved to be the most challenging old house site I had ever worked.  It had more old iron metal trash in the ground where it had stood than I had ever encountered before anywhere!  Hour after hour I worked the site, in the all-metal (zero) mode with my Garrett ATPro, convinced it had Civil War and pre-Civil War coins and artifacts still waiting to be uncovered although I had no doubt that the easy finds had long since been cherry-picked by outlaw hunters trespassing on the site at night over the years.  Nobody ever gets it all on a site like this one, though, so I persevered… but to no avail.  

Six long hours of frustrating metal detecting went by and I had not dug even one non-ferrous target or any kind of Civil War artifact.  The big pieces of iron I dug were old but were so many it was impossible to dig even a fraction of them.  I know they are hiding everything from cannonballs, bayonets, shell fragments, and so on from the battle and the structure’s use as a field hospital, but it would take an archaeological dig of every square foot and sifting of every bucket of dirt to find them.  The trash iron metal signals are only about 3 to 4 inches apart and THAT is a situation where a small 5” diameter searchcoil could be of great value.  It might not get the deep relics and coins but it would see between the closely laying pieces of iron trash and pull out some of the shallower non-ferrous signals.  But… that was not an option for me that day as I had not brought a small coil with me.   So… I put the ATPro in Coin hunting mode, blanking out much of the trash iron signals, and began to sweep the site again as the day’s hunt neared its end. 

To my pleasant surprise, I finally started to hear non-ferrous targets.  Over the last hour on the Bottom House site I dug 12 non-ferrous targets in a row and NO ferrous (iron) but all were modern pieces of aluminum… everything from pieces of TV antenna to crushed soft drink cans and a couple of pull tabs.   At the time I was still recovering from a painful back injury and my back was starting to give out on me.  With a mile walk back to our vehicle, I decided to find one more non-ferrous signal and dig it before I admitted defeat and left the site without a single good find.   I began swinging as I walked in the direction of where our car was parked and right away I got my 13th non-ferrous signal with the AT Pro.  I knew it was bigger than a coin and thought it was another crushed soft drink can. 

US Army Civil War Eagle Breastplate
Found by Dorian Cook, the author at The Sam Bottom House Site, Perryville, KY

You can imagine my surprise when out popped a U.S. Civil War soldier’s brass Eagle Breastplate from his cartridge box strap in beautiful condition!   A truly great find that changed the whole day for me and came through sheer determination and perseverance and… having the experience and skill of having hunted MANY old house sites under my belt for over 40 plus years and knowing what you have to put up with in order to make great finds sometimes. 

I endured over 7 hours of complete failure and frustration on that old house site in order to make that great find.  To me… it was all worthwhile.  Would it be to you?  If not… you are certainly not ready to hunt old house sites full of metal trash in the ground.  Think about it!

Where the US Army Civil War Eagle Breastplate was
found by Dorian Cook, the author at The Sam Bottom House Site, Perryville, KY

This concludes Part 1 of metal detecting older homesites, but Part 2 will pick up where we leave off here as we have a “lot more ground” to cover on this subject… if you will pardon the pun.  Hopefully, I will have Part 2 finished and submitted to the editor in just a few more days.

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