Diagnostic Coinshooting

By Jay Pastor
From page 10 of the January, 2001 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright © January, 2001 Lost Treasure, Inc. all rights reserved

"Half this game is ninety percent mental." Yogi Berra

Many THers play an instructive and interesting game while out in the field. For want of a formal name, I'll call it Diagnostic Coinshooting. The idea is to come as close as you can to guessing the denomination and era of a buried coin before you attempt to dig it up.

This requires that you carefully consider and compare each new signal with your past experiences of signals from other coins you've encountered. To some extent, it's possible to do that. You develop a feel for certain responses - a feel that may be largely unconscious until you need it.

Try to recall what goes on in your mind when you get a response from a buried target, and you'll probably understand what I mean. From the amplitude and duration of the sound, you might very well decide immediately that you're over a large piece of trash, possibly a buried beer can, and walk away.

On a slightly more sophisticated level, you can probably tell, without much effort, that you may have detected a half-dollar, possibly lying flat or close to that angle, about two to four inches down. While a beginner usually considers an insight of this sort almost magical, to a detectorist with a year or more of digging behind him, it's a piece of cake. And an old veteran THer might have his detecting senses honed so finely that he can tell the difference between a wheat cent and an Indian head cent, between a silver quarter and a clad quarter, and even between a Mercury and a Barber dime.

There are subtle cues. With enough practice, you somehow recognize these differences instinctively without having to think about them. The radio frequency output of your search coil becomes the equivalent of a doctor's finger, probing the soil for telltale signs. It's a nice feeling when you're right.

Sometimes, however, no matter how good a diagnostician you are, or how sophisticated a detector you use, what you dig up isn't what you expected to find. This experience can be good or bad. That anticipated silver Roosevelt dime might turn out instead to be one with a draped bust of Liberty surrounded by 16 stars on the obverse side (nothing to sneeze at). Conversely, an expected large cent could wind up as something that entitles you to a free wheel-cover cleaning at Marvin's car wash (if Marvin is still in business). But the bad ones can sometimes be interesting.

While hunting on the grounds of a Revolutionary War-era home, I received a strong silver-coin signal at a depth of six inches. That's enough to give any detectorist an endorphin high, particularly since I had found many old coins in the vicinity. As I removed the soil, a dime-sized disk started to emerge. On its face was the profile of a wigged head, and I could just about make out the date: 1792. The bubble burst when I picked it up, brushed it off, and turned it over. The inscription on the reverse side informed me that I was the proud new owner of a 10-Mazuma piece - play money.

Although, for play money, the coin was fairly old, possibly from the 1920's or 1930's when Mazuma was a common slang expression for cash, particularly among horseplayers and gangsters (the kind that wore spats and pencil striped suites). Yet, how many treasure hunters can say that they own a 10-Mazuma piece? It's some kind of a distinction.

Alternatively, on that same day, I received a comparable signal in another part of that field. Digging down carefully, I unearthed what appeared to be a small piece of aluminum. It had that dusty white color that oxidized aluminum sometimes gets. And, in the glare of the noon sun, there seemed to be nothing on it. Naturally, I didn't happen to have my glasses or a magnifier with me. But, from past experience, I knew better than to discard the find immediately. The signal I had received from it didn't gibe with my gut-level response to something from aluminum. It sounded like silver. Don't ask me why. I just knew it.

I walked about a quarter of a mile back to the car and retrieved a Garrett folding magnifier from the glove compartment, something that I should have had in my pocket to begin with. The aluminum piece turned out to be a badly worn One Reale silver coin. Under the magnifier, despite the wear, the date was easily discernible: 1786. It pays to listen to your intuitions, particularly when they were developed by experience and practice.

There are also odd occasions when your instincts are right, yet your find is not. In that same field, I received a signal that had to come from a large cent. Nothing else sounds exactly like that. And the depth was appropriate. I dug it up and it was a large cent, but it also wasn't a large cent. The planchet (i.e., bare metal piece) was indeed from a large cent, either before the cent was minted, or created by grinding off the faces of an existing coin. A geometric pattern had been pressed into it, and a highly incompetent drawing of a rural church scene inscribed over the pattern by the aspiring engraver.

It was somewhat of a monstrosity, but interesting nevertheless. A numismatist at the local coin club told me that it's an example of early hobo art - something that a mendicant with a lot of time on his hands might make to sell for the price of a meal. In a way, it might even be a better find than a conventional large cent.

Normally, though, it's possible to get some solid hits in predicting the identity of a buried coin. I've spoken to other detectorists who attempted to do so, and they've had surprisingly good luck also. There are two benefits from going through this procedure before attempting to retrieve a wild coin from its lair.

First, and most important, it teaches you to heed the variety of signals returned to you from under the ground. You become sensitized to weaker or sporadic returns, a skill that helps you increase your finds. You develop a deeper understanding of your detector's capabilities. And by searching for the signals that might be most productive, you increase the number of really good finds you make.

A second advantage is the focus it provides for your detecting. Even a bottle cap becomes something of value if you can successfully predict its identity, location, and depth before you dig it up. Every signal you get is a new challenge, so that your day has been valuable and instructive, even if you find no coins at all. You can sense you're skill growing, and it makes you feel like a professional. Try it and see if you don't agree.