I acquired my first metal detector when I was a kid, in 1971. It was a simple affair, as was the hobby back then. Detectorists were a very small group (likely regarded as extremely eccentric by “normal” people) and were primarily interested in searching for lost and buried treasure, such as hordes of Roman coins or Viking burials. That was during my childhood in the UK, of course. I don’t think we have much in the way of Roman or Viking riches in the United States, although at least one sensationalized reality television show might want you to believe otherwise.
During the 1970s my close childhood friend, John Flin, and I became something of an amateur treasure hunting team. We found coins, World War II relics — including plenty of old bullets and cartridges on a disused Royal Air Force base — and occasionally excavated the muck of the River Thames at low tide. Since city dwellers have been throwing, dumping, and accidentally dropping things into Londinuium’s murky waters since before Roman times, the slimy residue exposed when the tide flows out is rich with the discarded relics of multiple centuries.
Metal detectors operate on a fairly simple principle: A control box generates an electromagnetic pulse that is transmitted into the ground through a typically hoop-shaped coil. When that pulse encounters buried metal, the detector registers a disruption in the field and alerts the user via an audio signature, or a visual display, or both. In the old days, that was it. You heard a sound and dug up a target. Modern detectors are a whole lot more sophisticated and can often tell you what type of metal lies beneath your feet (iron, aluminum, or precious metals, for example). Some will even speculate what, precisely, your target could be (a dime, a ring pull from a soda or beer can, foil, etc.) and how deeply it might be buried.
The vast majority of detectors are hand-held units that weigh a few pounds, but some are larger and far more complex. Viewers who have watched my television series Meteorite Men on the Science channel may have seen us employing gigantic metal detectors that are towed behind a truck or ATV. Recent developments in pulse induction (PI) technology have enabled designers to build larger and larger coils, such as those used on the show. An oversize coil will cover more ground on each pass, and will also “see” further into the ground, giving detectorists the ability to recover targets from greater depths than ever before. Since the strength of an electomagnetic pulse decays quickly over distance, the larger the coil, the greater its range. While filming Season Three of Meteorite Men in the forests of western Poland, we found a 75-pound iron meteorite six feet underground. Such a concept would have sounded like science fiction to me as a kid, when the range of an average detector was likely not more that a foot.
As my interest in, and experience with, meteorites and their recovery increased, so did my familiarity with metal detectors. I have used scores of detectors over the past few decades, and worked with equipment from all the leading manufacturers, of which there are quite a number. I have a long-standing professional relationship with Fisher Labs in El Paso, Texas and we used their excellent detectors (notably the F-75) in all three seasons of Meteorite Men. We were even invited to field test prototypes of new models on the show, and that was a great treat for a gearhead like myself. Fisher detectors (and the products of their sister company, Teknetics) are lightweight, highly sensitive, reliable, easy to use, and affordable. As such, they are a popular choice for many experienced detectorists and I have found meteorites on four continents using them.
Every search presents its own challenges and it is important to select the right equipment for the job. One of the most highly respected companies in the metal detector world is Minelab, and their sophisticated and advanced detectors are favored by many of the world’s most experienced relic hunters and gold prospectors. Minelab users have an extraordinary loyalty to the company and it is easy to see why. I am the proud owner of a GPX 5000 and it is easily one of the best pieces of equipment I’ve ever used. Minelab’s higher end detectors are probably second to none in their class, in terms of range and versatility, and the care with which they are manufactured is reflected in the price tag — but you get what you pay for. I’ve heard stories from the most reliable sources about experienced gold hunters returning to sites long considered to be “played out,” only to recover a small fortune in nuggets, due to the increased depth range of the newest Minelab. You might spend thousands of dollars on a Minelab, but you also might make all of that back in one day, and then some. As my co-host of Meteorite Men, Steve Arnold, once remarked: “You can have a really good year, in an afternoon, if you get lucky.”
The growing popularity of metal detecting, both as a hobby and as a profession, is reflected by this weekend’s second annual Go Minelabbing / National Metal Detecting Day events. Tomorrow, Saturday, May 18, Minelab is sponsoring four day-long events in Santa Barbara, California; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Toronto, Canada and Rio de Janiero, Brazil (we should probably think about changing that to “International Metal Detecting Day” next year!). As we did last year, Steve and I are appearing as featured guests but, this year, the Meteorite Men are straddling the continent. Steve will be at the Atlantic City event, and I’ll be in Santa Barbara, along with Tim and George, hosts of the NatGeo television series Diggers.
Metal detectorists are my people. It takes skill to operate a detector properly and it takes determination to make significant finds. A good deal of patience is also required in order to become a successful hunter and these qualities are attractive to me. Detectorists are typically intelligent, focused, thoughtful, and slightly whimsical gearheads. There’s also something existentially upbeat about them. You have to function with a certain positive mindset if that coil is going to keep on swinging, hour after hour, propelled by the hope or belief that the next big find could be just over there, under that tree, or on the slope of that hill.
If you’ve ever dreamed of finding buried treasure, join us tomorrow. Minelab will be displaying equipment, presenting organized hunts with purposely buried coins, sponsoring talks, kids’ events, and just about anything else that a seeker of buried treasure could wish for. I’ll be on the beach in front of the Fess Parker Doubletree Santa Barbara all day, reading from my latest book, Rock Star: Adventures of a Meteorite Man, giving a talk, answering questions, displaying meteorires, signing autographs, and generally reveling in the company of my like-minded and slightly but delightfully weird fellow treasure hunters. And if you want to see something really special, ask to take a look at my latest acquisition — a marvelous and recently-recovered piece of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that was part of the city-pummeling Russian fireball of February 15.
More information about National Metal Detecting Day / Go Minelabbing, or follow the hashtag #NMDD on Twitter
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Photographs by Pablo del Rio Larrain and Suzanne Morrison © Aerolite Meteorites, LLC.
Text © Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.