"Metal Detectors In Hand, Hobbyists Live For The Buzz"

Treasure Hunters Gather For Event In Annapolis

("The Sun," Section B, Pages 1 and 5, Sunday, October 5, 2002)

by Julie Bycowicz

Barney Dolt, his right arm swinging like a pendulum and a bead of sweat dangling from his nose, searched for treasure yesterday morning along the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay.

Through earmuff-sized headphones, he heard his metal detector hit a tone that tells him he's found something. The 67-year-old Eldersburg resident deftly stooped to sift through the sand, and uncovered a coin.

"Too many pennies," he grumbled as he tossed it into the basket strapped to his waist.

But he can't complain too much - earlier that day, Dolt helped plant the coins in a cordoned-off area of the beach as big as a football field.

In what can be described as a grown-up form of an Easter egg hunt, about 60 treasure hunters scoured the beach at Sandy Point State Park yesterday morning in search of buried silver coins and tokens.

The metal-detecting enthusiasts came from throughout Maryland and from as far as North Carolina to participate in an all-day hunt sponsored by the Maryland Artifact Recovery Society.

Hunters could keep any of the buried coins - about $400 worth were hidden inches below the surface - and 72 tokens, which could be exchanged for prizes ranging from a silver half-dollar to a Fisher metal detector valued at $1,700.

Called a "planned hunt," the event was a dress rehearsal for genuine hunts, where the prizes can be anything from a soda can pull-tab to a thousand-dollar piece of lost jewelry to a priceless relic from the Civil War.

Like the chunks of metal they're after, treasure hunters can be hard to spot - they blend into shorelines and lurk in thick vegetation farther inland - but they're everywhere.

Longtime treasure hunters estimate that thousands of metal- detecting enthusiasts are active on the East Coast, and five metal-detecting clubs - each with about 40 members - are registered with the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs.

In Maryland, where winters tend to be mild and the ground rarely freezes, treasure hunters are out year-round.

The most visible metal detecting is done by amateur beachcombers, who spend about $100 each on unsophisticated machines and sweep beaches looking for junk jewelry that bathers have dropped in the sand.

Serious treasure hunters scoff at them.

Those who are intent - the ones who invest thousands of dollars in computerized equipment - comb places such as cornfields and sites of demolished buildings for relics and valuables. They prefer to be called metal "detectorists."

The Thrill Of The Hunt

It is not a cheap hobby. Metal detectors, which weigh between 2 pounds and 7 pounds and look like weed cutters, range in price from $150 to almost $2,000, with good-quality ones starting at about $700. Accessories, such as digging knives, shovels and pails, add to the bill.

But the emotional high of detecting a treasure - no matter how small or insignificant it might turn out to be - offsets the expense, enthusiasts say.

At a recent Maryland Artifact Recovery Society meeting in Linthicum, about two dozen members, mostly men from their late 30s to retirement age, proudly displayed the month's best and most unusual finds.

In displays reminiscent of school projects, the old coins, buttons, thimbles, glass bottles, and chunks of dishes were organized into categories or poster board or neatly laid out in clear cases.

Most detectorists say they don't spend hours in a field looking for treasure. Rather, the thrill of the hunt, they say, keeps them swinging their machines.

"Every time you get that beep, your heart starts going," said John Fassel, 41, an avid treasure hunter who lives in Salisbury.

Although Dolt collected a pocketful of change and one prize token during the hunt yesterday morning, he walked off the beach with a smile.

A treasure hunter for four decades, he said the open hunts are more about seeing old friends and swapping detecting stories than making money and winning prizes.

"Johnny! What're you doing out there?" he called jokingly to his buddy and fellow MARS member John Gillin, 63, of Baltimore, bumping into him during the hunt.

"Barney! How are you doin', sweetheart?" Gillin bantered.

Lost And Found

Like any hobby, treasure hunting can become mundane. To avoid burnout, lots of searchers will switch from land hunting to beach hunting and even do a bit of water searching.

"It can get boring at times," said Bob Neighoff, an Elkridge resident and MARS member. "It's not a gold mine out there."

Sometimes, though, the hunters strike pay dirt.

A clear diamond mounted on a gold band twinkles on Cynthia Fassel's ring finger. Her husband, John, wears a heavy gold ring faintly engraved with a family crest.

Both are finds they were unable to return to the original owners. John Fassel unearthed the gold ring in Palm Beach, Fla., about three years ago, and the engagement ring turned up on a beach in Ocean City.

"It's not like we can advertise that we found something, because then you have dozens of phonies call you up claiming it's theirs," he said.

Instead, he and his wife scan the "lost" ads in local newspapers looking for possible owners.

As part of Shore Seekers, an Eastern Shore metal-detecting club that searches for lost items free of charge, the Fassels have returned numerous lost items to grateful - and often emotional - owners.

Late one night about eight years ago, the two hustled to a stretch of beach off 33rd Street in Ocean City to look for a Baltimore woman's heirloom necklace that had been swallowed by the sand earlier that day.

Armed with their metal detectors, they scanned the beach. After about a half-hour, John Fassel caught sight of a gold medallion glinting in the moonlight.

They rushed to the hotel where the anxious family was staying and knocked on the door. When they held out the medallion, "you could hear about 15 people burst into tears," John Fassel said. "I got all kinds of hugs that night."

"I tear up now just thinking about how happy they were," added Cynthia Fassel, 55, bringing her hand to her heart.

Feel For Local History

Throughout the years, the Fassels and other treasure hunters have collected not only bits of bottles and mangled metal but hunks of history as well.

Shore Seekers club President Andy Nunez, 46, of Salisbury said he researched detection sites and all the coins, buttons and relics he finds at them.

"Detecting really gives you a feel for local history," he said.

He tells of legends of secret tunnels underneath the old Cellar House in Pocomoke, and of the treasure belonging to the notorious 19th-century murderer Patty Cannon - supposedly thousands of silver coins buried in a farm field near the Delaware line.

Nunez recounted some stories while aimlessly scanning a field in Fruitland one recent Sunday evening. When the tinny hum of his $1,000 White's Spectrum interrupted his tales, he glanced at the small screen that tells him what he has likely found and quickly categorized the item.

"Junk. ... Probably nothing." About 10 minutes into the hunt, one tone elicited a "hmmm" from him.

He crouched and carefully sliced into the ground with a trowel. After flipping back the grass - considerate metal detectorists do this so they don't disturb the landscape - he dug through the dirt with his hands.

Five minutes of searching turned up a 1994 penny covered in hardened mud.

"Oh well," he said as he refilled the hole.

"Every time you go out, you have no idea what you're going to find," he said. "But I'll tell you this - there's a lot of history in the ground."