Discovering the Past

With Metal Detectors

Text and photos by Joseph Johanek

Prospecting equipmentRoaming the desert in search of interesting and historical places, most of us miss golden opportunities to find items from the past. Millions of pieces of history are still buried in the southwestern deserts, just of out of eyesight; but not out of the range of a metal detector. With a metal detector we can find old coins, artifacts or bottle dumps that are concealed beneath the surface. Not all items of history are worth a lot of money, but they can have value nonetheless as historical curiosities, or visible remnants of another age.

Over the past 30 years, I've found coins, toys, rings, watches and a variety of artifacts. The memorable items I've found were rarely valuable, but were always unique. I get the same thrill finding a mule shoe or old tin cup as I do finding an 1872 half-dollar.

Once while treasure hunting in Pine Valley, California near an old homesteader cabin, I was using a long distance finder (Electroscope Detector), and it pointed to a largegears tree 100 feet away. So I took out my regular metal detector and got a strong signal under the tree. I dug down about 3 feet and found a buried cache of iron gears in assorted sizes and shapes. I determined that the gears came from an old piece of machinery.

On another occasion in the same area, I received a good signal behind an old miner's shack. I began to dig and discovered a dump site of tin bean cans. If only the cans were worth $1700 per ounce (like gold), I would have retired a millionaire that day. But don't get discouraged if you find old relics that may seem to have little or no value. There are plenty of desert treasures that have value today just because they are antiques.

By now you might be thinking, "I'm ready to start metal detecting myself. But which metal detector do I buy?"

There are three types of metal detectors: pulse, multi-frequency, and single frequency. Pulse and multi-frequency metal detectors are usually used at the beach, especially in wet sand. The pulse goes the deepest, but it detects every piece of metal in the ground and can't eliminate trash targets.

The multi-frequency metal detector can eliminate trash items such as bottle caps, nails, foil gum wrappers and pull-tabs. If there are items of value mixed in with trash however, it can't distinguish the two. This is a problem when metal detecting in a public area, such as a beach, where trash items sit up top and around items that may be of value.

The single frequency is the best option for areas where trash is prevalent. I use the old nailssingle frequency metal detector when treasure hunting because it cuts down on the false signals caused by trash, so I do less digging. The single frequency metal detector has the power to detect large items as far down as 20 feet. Smaller items, such as coins, can be detected as far down as 12 to 14 inches below the surface.

As a general rule, the price of the metal detector increases as the power to penetrate the ground for targets increases. Also, as the ID meter that identifies the target becomes more sophisticated and accurate, the price of the detector increases. This allows us the luxury of not having to dig a lot of holes due to a false signal from a confused metal detector.

Another type of treasure finder is the long range detector. These units can detect larger items and treasure chests as far beneath the surface as 20 feet and 2-10 blocks away. These metal detectors, which range in cost between $2,000 and $30,000, are used by professional treasure hunters.

Once you have selected your metal detector for treasure hunting adventures, a little practice will be needed in order for you to become familiar with its operation and sounds. Most modern metal detectors automatically adjust to ground minerals and uneven terrain (which can cause false signals).

Old wall

The biggest challenge of treasure hunting is the task of finding old sites where there is a chance of finding valuable and memorable treasures. We have all seen old miner's cabins, railroad stops, roadside parks and stagecoach stops; and these are perfect areas to search for items of "Value." As the saying goes, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," especially 100-year-old junk.

Happy treasure hunting!

Note: You cannot use a metal detector in national parks, state parks, or wilderness areas. Always get permission to prospect on private property. Most BLM land is open for prospecting, if it has not been placed in a protected status. To be safe, check with the local rangers when in doubt. As hobbyists, we must follow the federal laws that have to do with the removal of antiquities. Especially when removal of an object is on state land or parks.

About the Author: Joseph Johanek has been in the treasure hunting business for the last 45 years and is the former owner of the House of Treasure Hunters in San Diego, California.

Related DesertUSA Pages
Desert Rock Hounding, Treasure Hunting
& Gold Prospecting

Julian, California


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