17 November 2014

Metal Detecting Post #118 - Southern Cemeteries

Photo by Robert Moore
No, I do not relic hunt/metal detect in cemeteries or graveyards. That is highly unethical, not to mention illegal. But one does find things related, nonetheless. Several weeks ago, fellow Virginian and blogger, Robert Moore, sent me some photos of coffin handles he had recovered from a family cemetery. Robert was part of a group that was cleaning and restoring the old cemetery. He wanted to know if I could help pinpoint the manufacture date. Though I have quite a few resources, I was unable to help, though Robert later dated them to the mid 19th century.
They appear to be made of some type of pewter alloy. 

It wasn't too long after this that I had my own experience with coffin hardware. I recently gained access to a piece of property I've wanted to metal detect for several years. The property had changed hands and doors opened with the new owner. The site is an old farm here in the Shenandoah Valley that dates to the early 1800's - over 500 acres. A Confederate veteran lived there at one time and oral history says the place was raided by Union soldiers during the War Between the States.
Photo by Robert Moore

I've detected the area around the main house (circa 1830) for about 3 hours and found absolutely nothing worth keeping. I suspect it's been detected hard in previous years. Then the other day I was back relic hunting in one of the surrounding cornfields and the farm manager stopped by for a visit. After I told him I wasn't finding much besides junk, he said, "You should go up on the hill and hunt around the old family cemetery." I must have looked surprised and disgusted all at the same time, because he very quickly added, "Oh, no, no, I don't mean IN the cemetery, just AROUND it. It's fenced in."

So I headed to the location, about a half mile from the main home. Access to the location required 4WD. The family cemetery has many of the characteristics one so often sees in Southern Appalachia areas of the United States: at the top of a hill, behind the main home, with yucca plants and all the headstones all facing east.
Yucca plants are evergreen and were often used to mark the foot of a grave and, in the absence of a stone, the head. They are also believed to have spiritual significance in Native-American and African cultures. No doubt some of that ritual belief was adopted by white settlers as well.

The earliest death date I could make out was 1822, though I believe there are older graves there. The cemetery was in deplorable condition. The yucca plants have all but taken over the whole area (about 24'x40'), groundhogs have wreaked havoc, many headstones are broken and others have fallen over. Also, the ground had evidently suffered significant erosion as the burial area sat about 18" above the surrounding pasture, exposing the very base of the fence posts.

The surrounding grass was pretty high, making it difficult to swing my detector coil close to the ground. And, again, I want to be clear that I only detected OUTSIDE the fenced burial area. Darkness was approaching fast, so everything I found I just stuffed into my bag without really looking at it until I got home. Most of what I found consisted of nails and cow tags - except for what you see below. I'm relatively sure these are hardware pieces from a coffin, similar to Robert's. I found all of them about 2 feet off of the northeast corner of the cemetery. Like Robert's they seem to be made out of some type of "pot metal" or pewter alloy.

The farm manager told me that he and the new owner plan to clean and restore the old cemetery. I will be returning these pieces to the cemetery at that time.

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