December 10, 2018
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Modern day treasure hunters unearth the unexpected in Maine

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Guy Marsden of Woolwich searches for relics with a metal detector on Sept. 25, at a flea market in Midcoast Maine where he's gained permission from the owner to search and dig. Like fishermen with their fishing holes, detectorists rarely reveal their favorite spots to detect and dig.

Bleep. Bleep. Bleep.

The metal detector sounded off as Guy Marsden swung it in a low arc over the grass.

“It’s a mixed signal, so it might be a piece of iron with some silver, like a coin,” Marsden, 63, said as he passed over the spot again and again, watching the bars jump on the screen of his metal detector with each bleep.

Marsden, an electrical engineer and product designer from Woolwich, developed an interest in metal detecting last fall, and since then, he has unearthed some fascinating objects. The hobby, he said, is addicting, and it’s one enjoyed by a wide variety of people around the world.

Over the past year, Marsden has used his new $300 metal detector to uncover rare coins and tokens, tiny figurines, jewelry and even Civil War musket balls at locations throughout Maine. He has searched cellar holes, beaches and even the backyards of families and friends. But one of the most fruitful places he searches is a flea market in the midcoast, where he has gained permission to detect and dig from the owner.

“You’d never know I’d been here,” Marsden said as he roamed the property on a recent September day, when the market was closed. “And I’ve dug thousands of holes.”

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Guy Marsden of Woolwich searches for relics with a metal detector on Sept. 25, at a flea market in Midcoast Maine where he's gained permission from the owner to search and dig. Like fishermen with their fishing holes, detectorists rarely reveal their favorite spots to detect and dig.

Using the pinpointing mode on his metal detector, Marsden zoned in on a metal object, then knelt down to slice into the turf with a spade. His Garrett ACE 300 metal detector not only told him what type of metal to expect, but also approximately how deep the object would be. Using a handheld pinpointer tool — which resembled a small flashlight and would beep when in close proximity to any metal — he searched through the dirt to find a coin.

“A stinkin’ Lincoln,” he said, brushing clumps of dirt from the surface of the coin.

Stinkin’ Lincoln is a metal detectorist word for a modern penny, which is made mostly of zinc and therefore quickly rots in the soil, unlike older coins, which were made of copper and silver, which hold up to years of being buried. Another fun metal detecting term is “can slaw,” which describes the sharp aluminum bits left behind when a lawn mower chews up a can — one reason all metal detectorists wear gloves.

For every treasure a detectorist finds, they’ve usually also uncovered a pile of stinkin’ Lincolns, bits of tin foil and other trash. It can be frustrating, Marsden said, but it’s inevitable. And it makes finding special objects all the more exciting.

Tucking the corroded penny into a pouch of his tool belt, Marsden gently folded the turf back in place and stamped it down with his sneaker until any trace of his hole disappeared. He then picked up his metal detector and began swinging it in a wide arc over the lawn once more, taking tiny steps after each swing so not to miss an inch of ground.

He didn’t want the penny, but Marsden makes a point to pick up absolutely everything he finds, including trash. It’s a part of the metal detecting code of conduct that he follows.

“There are two reasons [to carry out the trash you find],” Marsden said. “One is it’s polite. And the other is if you’re going to go back over this ground, you don’t want to find the same damn thing.”

This code of conduct is well-known in the metal detecting community, which is small but well-connected through the internet, Marsden said. In fact, most of what he has learned about metal detecting has been through YouTube channels and social media groups dedicated to the hobby.

He’s also learned a great deal from the British TV series, “Detectorists,” which first aired in 2014 and is a scripted comedy about two men who share a passion for metal detecting. It was this show that inspired Marsden to pursue the hobby in the first place. But unfortunately, he discovered the TV series in November, when the ground was just starting to freeze in Maine, putting the activity on hold for months.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
The collection of metal objects found by Guy Marsden of Woolwich using a metal detector has rapidly grown during his first year enjoying the hobby. He now has a fully shelf of metal objects, including animal figurines and old coins.

“I couldn’t really dig, so I went to YouTube university all winter long,” Marsden said.

Watching videos on a nightly basis, Marsden learned about metal detecting from YouTube channels such as “Relic Recoverist,” which is run Joycelyn Elizabeth, a 30-year-old woman from Pennsylvania, who has collected more than 32,000 subscribers by sharing her metal detecting adventures. His other favorite channels include “Aquachigger,” “Dawn Digger,” “Stealth Diggers” and “Addicted to Bleeps.”

“I payed really close attention to their equipment, how they used it, what their sequence was, how they dug, what they dug, what they said about how they dug, how they cleaned it,” Marsden said. “So I came out of the gate first thing in April and I was a good detectorist just from watching these people.”

Joining the internet community of metal detectorists, Marsden started his own blog, “Guy Digs It Up,” in April, and has since posted photos and anecdotes about his finds on a regular basis.

One of the first big finds he wrote about was a 1907 bronze medallion celebrating 300 years of shipbuilding in Bath, Maine. He unearthed the relic on the property of an old farmhouse, and he donated it to a local historical society.

“They were tickled to have it,” he said. “It was a major deal.”

A few of his other favorite discoveries are old coins, including a Standing Liberty quarter, a silver 25-cent coin minted in the United States in the 1920s, which he found at his camp in Sorrento. He’s also uncovered a large American cent (about the size of a quarter) minted in 1822, buried on his friend’s property in Damariscotta.

“The house was built in the 1840s, so it makes sense,” he said. “There was a carriage house in the back and it was near the stables section, so it could have fallen off a carriage.”

Now just a year into the hobby, Marsden has a shelf covered with metal objects, and while some of them are rare and valuable, most of them are simple trinkets with little to no market value. But for him, the merit of each object comes from the stories it inspires, real or imagined.

On a recent afternoon, he picked a heavy bronze letter opener up from his shelf of discoveries and weighed it in his hand.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Guy Marsden of Woolwich holds a silver Standing Liberty quarter, a 25-cent coin minted in the United State in 1925. He found the coin buried in the ground at his camp in Sorrento this summer by using a metal detector. It's one of his favorite finds so far. He often keeps it his pocket.

“You can picture some dear old Victorian biddy, you know, opening her envelopes,” he said.

Researching each object is one part of the hobby, but Marsden always waits to do that at home, after he’s cleaned each item using various solutions of baking soda, vinegar and salt. He has a rock tumbler he uses to clean coins, and he’s even used electrolysis to zap away heavy rust. He also tests items with acids that detect gold, silver and platinum, and he uses Renaissance Wax to preserve some of his special finds, including old ornate buttons. In all, he’s probably spent about $1,000 on all the equipment he uses, including the metal detector, he said.

“No matter what I find, I don’t get excited about it in the field,” he said. “I bring it home, and then I get interested and chew into the web and find out what it is. … It’s two very distinct processes. It’s finding and being in that meditative state, and then it’s coming home and then thoughtfully cleaning and researching. But that’s just me. Everyone’s different.”

For Marsden, when he’s in the field, he simply wants to search and dig.

“I get into this really wonderful Zen state when I’m detecting. My mind shuts off, and I’m just listening to the bleeps,” he said. “It’s very peaceful, very relaxing.”

“It’s exactly the same thing as fishing,” he explained. “You don’t go fishing to catch fish. You go fishing for the experience.”

You go metal detecting for the search, the excitement of a high-pitched beep signifying a silver or gold, and the simple joy of unearthing a bit of history from the dirt.

The following is the version of “Metal Detecting Code of Conduct” Marsden adheres to:

— Always check national and local laws regarding metal detecting before searching.

— Respect landowners and always obtain permission before entering private property.

— Always use proper recovery methods. Fill all holes and do no damage.

— Always take your trash with you; leave the area better than you found it.

— Appreciate and protect our heritage of natural resources, wildlife and private property.

— As an ambassador of the sport, use thoughtfulness, consideration and courtesy at all times.

— Never damage or remove any historically significant or archeological treasures.

— Always leave gates as found, and never tamper with signs or equipment.

— Do not destroy property or buildings.

— Watch your back.

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