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This Local Alexandria Historian is Obsessed With Relic Hunting

But many shovels-full yield nothing, not even one Civil War bullet.

Tools of the trade. (Photos by Mike Salmon)

Alexandria, VA – It began out of local history curiosity and turned into a quest that drained time and energy in my effort to find a Civil War bullet. It was a true lesson on local history, relics, metal detecting, and patience.

In early high school, I visited an encampment site in the country that we had permission to relic hunt on, but early on in that excursion, a loose wire popped off my friend’s cheap metal detector, so we were done for the day. I did find a horseshoe on top of the dirt, so it was my first official find, setting the bait for more.

I would eventually discover that places that looked like a good place for a Union or Confederate camp were just a shot in the dark. With no accurate maps or tips from others, I’d find clearings, get out my metal detector, and spend a fair amount of time finding a bottle cap or a nail.

I ended up in the Bull Run Winery, staring at display case after display case of relics the owner had found through the years on the winery land and other construction projects in the area, including the Fairfax County Parkway. By hunting on a newly cleared land, like early on in a construction project, they’ve already done some of the work digging, so it’s a good place to start, relic hunters have told me.

The Bull Run Winery owner found these Civil War relics around this area, mainly when the ground was dug up for construction, like when the Fairfax County Parkway was built.

There is an association though, and the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association has a book called Groundbreakers to commemorate their 50th anniversary. The book includes pictures of finds from the Revolutionary War and Civil War into the 20th century—all kinds of things they found in Northern Virginia, including artillery shells, swords, bayonets, buttons, bullets, camp gear, and coins.

This whet my whistle, so I grabbed my metal detector and shovel again and went to a spot someone had recommended. Note here: relic hunters do not divulge their sites but might give clues, so I acted on one and ended up staring at a spot under the power lines close to Franconia. After about 30 minutes of detecting, I got a beep, so I dug and dug, kneeling in the mud, digging down about 18 inches, and got nothing.

It started raining too. After about two hours, I packed up and left. Remember the need for patience? It ran out on this outing.

I found the horseshoe on land near Culpeper and the coffee pot near an old railbed in Fairfax County. I found the other item, a random piece of rusted steel that I think is a piece of a rifle near Newington Road. Are they from the Civil War? I don’t know.

The Civil War raged throughout Fairfax County. Several battle sites may have that Civil War bullet that I longed after, but there are rules concerning property ownership. There are relic hunters and a separate sect that fall under archeologists. Under county laws, relic hunting is prohibited on federal, state, and county-owned property (parkland and other county property). The county said that relic hunting would only be permitted if it was part of a formal professional archaeological project. In those cases, the artifacts become part of the archaeological collections. They are not the property of the person who finds them. According to the county, relic hunting is legal on privately owned land with permission from the property owner.

A Civil War bullet, for example, may become part of a display on the living room mantle, but there may be history to be learned from it. The county said a private collection might destroy the context of the artifact recovered. A single artifact may be interesting, but one can learn more about life in the past by looking at the artifacts and others found in proximity. This gives us a more complete picture of the activities that were occurring.

My bullet quest continues though.

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