Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Bill Archer

March 24, 2014

A search for relics ignites a desire to search for understanding

— — “The relic is out of the hole,” my friend John Velke said as he passed the sensor end of a metal detector over a pile of dirt and it squealed a high-pitch sound.

Less than an hour earlier, John had shown me the basics of searching for artifacts with a metal detector, and I got a tone right away during my first pass of the gadget. That first find proved to be a Union Army four-hole underwear button — something that I never knew existed until that moment. I just hadn’t thought of it.

When I made that first find, John shook my hand, congratulated me on my discovery, and told me to resume my search. During the next hour, I discovered two bent nails, a spent .22 cartridge and a rusty piece of barbed wire. However, the very next time the metal detector squealed a high-pitch tone, I dug a hole about nine inches deep. John passed the metal detector over the dirt I had just cleared from the hole ... the detector squealed ... John recited the line about the relic being out of the hole, looked at me and said, “I’m going to let you find it.”

John earned his passion for relic hunting 43 years ago when the Smithsonian Institute was excavating a site near a Civil War era camp near his home in Alexandria, Va. He and a friend had noticed some relic hunters working an area where the earth had recently been disturbed during construction excavation. They came upon a team of government archaeologists who were screening material in a search for Civil War artifacts. The government workers asked John and his friend to fill buckets with dirt from a steep hillside to help them in their search. That’s the kind of stuff that any 13-year-old lives for.

When the government employees left the site at 5 p.m., John stayed and continued screening buckets of dirt — finding buttons and bullets. From that moment on, he was hooked. He has worked sites throughout the United States as an adult, written many magazine articles on the topic of relic hunting as well as a regular feature for American Digger Magazine called, “On the Road.”

Just like any other job worth doing well, John spends a lot more time doing research than he does actually walking through fields and forests swinging a metal detector from side to side. Regardless of the nature of his search, he works to understand the story of why the people of a certain point in history would leave metallic reminders of their visit to that unique place in time.

John is not driven by a thirst for fame and fortune. The relics he finds are only something that validates his efforts to find the story. It’s the story that drives him to learn more.

I first met John when he visited Bluefield College to talk with students about the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency. John is a descendant of William Gabony Baldwin, founder of the West Virginia Coal & Iron Police — the predecessor company to the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency.

Many of the contemporary histories of that era in the coalfields have a social bias. I appreciated John’s research on the detectives because the story he wrote provided a more well-rounded examination of the agency.

When I first found out that John knew about metal detecting and such, I wanted to experience the thrill of a discovery. It took more than two years until I found a five-hour stretch of time that meshed with John’s busy schedule and we could go to a place he had already researched. John knew that Civil War soldiers who were camped at a site he was familiar with would look for a place to wash their uniforms. He took me to an area that he surmised might have been an avenue for the soldiers to get to a spring-fed stream.

“They only had one set of clothes,” he said. “They had to wash their uniforms when they could. When they shook their uniforms out to dry, sometimes buttons fell off.”

John waited for me to visually search the pile of dirt I had cleared. I looked at it for a while and finally spotted a brown object in the pile of dirt that was round, smaller than a dime and the same shade of brown as the rest of the dirt I had temporarily removed from the hole. I said, “That?” John answered, “Pick it up.” I picked the piece up and John congratulated me again, shook my hand and said I had found a sleeve button from a Union Army uniform.

A day later, after following his cleaning instructions, I saw that the button has an “A” in the middle of the shield, indicating that the button was worn on the sleeve of a soldier who served in an artillery battalion. Eighty years after that soldier lost his sleeve button, my dad was serving in another war, a half of a world away in France and Germany and also serving in an artillery battalion. For some reason in that short period of time, I felt closer to my dad.

I’m not much of one to say “bucket list,” but searching for Civil War relics was something I always wanted to do in life. The cigar-smoking gents I knew in the Civil War Roundtable in Pennsylvania that George Melvin took me to for their Sunday afternoon discussions always talked about finding Mini balls and the like, but I never even knew how to look. I found one thing, though. If you remain open to discovery, a person can learn something new.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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