Woman’s hobby leads to detecting history

Woman’s hobby leads to detecting history
Peggy Higgins shows some of the coins and objects she’s been able to unearth over four years of metal detecting. Photo by Tony Cagala

COAST CITIES — Peggy Higgins isn’t one to hide her enthusiasm for a hobby that she began four years ago. On most every weekend, she’s listening for objects from the past, searching for the underlying history that most people walk over without ever knowing it.

Higgins, as her car’s license plate holder reads, “digs” metal detecting.

When she isn’t detecting, Higgins, 55, works as a victims advocate for the County. She said detecting is a good way to decompress and get exercise.

She readily admits the hobby (which isn’t cheap to get in to) has turned into an addiction for her, and is constantly on the lookout for a spot that hasn’t been detected before.

Peggy Higgins admits her metal detecting hobby has grown into an addiction. Photo by Tony Cagala

The tools of her trade: a knife for digging, a “pinpointer” detector, some cloth and a White’s MXT Pro metal detector and knee pads.

Within minutes of starting her detecting sweeps, Higgins picks up on a repeatable tone, a tone that suggests she’s found a target.

A display on her detector provides a reading as to what the object might be. In this instance, the display fluctuates between the object being a ring or a coin.

The numbers that show up on the display could signal a quarter, but it could also be silver, Higgins explained. “When in doubt, dig,” she said. “That pull tab could actually be a ring.”

Higgins goes with her “gut feeling,” and sets down her detector, probing the damp grass with her hands.

After a short search, she finds the object: a silver ring with what appears to be an Irish or Celtic wedding-knot-style pattern running around it, and judging from its size belonged to a man with large fingers.

“Holy moly,” she said, after unearthing the ring. “I’m happy.”

The ring didn’t have any markings or inscription on it, but if it did, Higgins said she’d be out looking for the owner. “That’s what you want to do. If you find an inscription, you want to get it back to the owner,” she said.

It can be hit-and-miss when uncovering an object from the ground. After hearing another promising tone, Higgins began to dig, unearthing only junk — a screw cap from a bottle. Even so, Higgins kept the cap for proper disposal later.

Higgins said that you’d be astonished at how much trash, pop tabs and screw caps they find when out detecting.

She keeps the coins she finds, but if she’s on an historical site, the objects are returned to the owner.

Butch Holcombe is the publisher of American Digger Magazine, a nationwide publication dedicated to diggers and collectors of American heritage.

Since the publication’s launch nine years ago, Holcombe has seen a tremendous growth in the interest and popularity of metal detecting.

“We’re actually seeing a lot of young people getting involved,” Holcombe said. “Young people and retired people,” he added. “Retired people just looking for something to do as a hobby and it is a great hobby, and young people because, I think that…they’re sparked by history, for things that existed before them.”

Holcombe said some of the interest in detecting comes from the thrill of finding something that no one has seen before.

“To us, value is not as important as the historical significance, and I think a lot of people are just hungry for history,” he said.

When Higgins finds an object, she wonders all of the time about how it got there; who put it there?

At one of the baseball fields in Escondido, she found a horseshoe just below where the third baseline on one of the fields ran. “And I’m thinking, ‘how did this get here?’” After a bit of research online, Higgins found that the fields were once used as a cattle ranch.

The history of it is the exciting part for Higgins.

She said since taking up the hobby, she’s learned so much about the history of the county. When she does research for locations, Higgins usually begins online or at her local library.

But for detectors it can be difficult to gain access to historical or city-owned sites, including county parks.

Shannon Singler is with the County of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department. She said there is no policy that bans the use of metal detectors in the parks, but they do have ordinances that protect the geological and archaeological features in the parks.

And what is considered unlawful is digging or excavating in the parks. “Most times when people are using metal detectors they’ve come up on something and when they get an alert they want to dig it up and we won’t allow them to dig,” Singler said. “We just want to make sure that we are preserving all of the geological and ecological features within the park to the best of our ability.”

“Unfortunately, the archaeological community, who we have always tried to work with, has really cast a bad light on metal detecting,” Holcombe said. “They’ve called us ‘looters’ and ‘pot hunters’ and ‘thieves of history.’ And all of that is not so,” he said. “All that metal detectors are trying to do, as far as historical metal detecting, is to get the artifacts out of the ground before they’re destroyed forever.”

Much of what they find is at construction sites and areas that are being destroyed for development, Holcombe explained.

Many first-time detector enthusiasts will take to the beaches in hopes of finding Spanish doubloons, but most times they end up finding jewelry that people have lost.

Higgins offered this as advice to beachgoers: “Don’t wear your expensive jewelry to the beach, especially if it’s heirloom jewelry.”

And if you lose your jewelry, don’t advertise looking for it on Craigslist, she added. “Detectors come from all over and not everybody is as ethical,” she said.

Higgins’ goal is to search private residences or offer her services to historical sites throughout the county.

Higgins is also a member of Treasure Seekers of San Diego, a nonprofit organization that trains and educates people interested in metal detecting, small mining and treasure hunting techniques. To contact Higgins, email her at phsweeper@cox.net.

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  1. Scott DClark says:

    Keeping parks off-limits to responsible metal detecting is an overreaction which results in a net loss of historical knowledge. Issue permits and make detector users accountable – but don’t shut them out.

    I hate to see historical artifacts lost to the ravages of time, bulldozers and condo developments. Some friends tried to metal detect a state park recently where a large parking lot (!) was going in and they wouldn’t let us due to archaeology rules. Seriously!???

    Besides…the sites where most detector enthusiasts enjoy their hobby are NOT candidates for formal digs – and for most, the historical context is well documented already.

    Why not just employ reporting policies and build a crowdsourced database of finds within local parks?

  2. Peggy Higgins says:

    Well said Scott!!!! In other countries archaeologists and detectorists work side by side to recover historical items. The looters and poachers are far and few between and the rest of us are responsible and ethical! Scott if you email me I will give you an update regarding my discussion with the park Service.

    • steven says:

      according to ARPA, which regulates public lands, COINS and BULLET casings are exempt. They can be dug because by legal definition its not considered excavating. The term excavating applies only to objects covered by ARPA. City property is not covered by ARPA, but they may have their own ordinances, which I would request copies of. Coins fall within ARPA if they are in direct physical relationship with an archaeological site. Thats why i do not live in cali anymore, too many laws. Seems you cant enjoy innocent healthy hobbies anymore. Sad.

  3. Lee Brady says:

    Brilliant article, Email me leelad03@hotmail.com,

    I am planning to look into parks and to change the silly policy in my area.

    Thanks

    • steven says:

      maybe you should show them all the metal trash that is dangerous to little kids that play there. Im diggin up needles, razor sharp metal, rusty wire amongst other items daily. Just dug a live bullet today. You are cleaning their park of half buried dangerous metal debris for free.

      • I did mention all the trash that resides in the Park’s soil. To add to what you stated let us not forget the pull tabs which went bent up are sharp, the bottle caps, nails and plenty of all of these and the ones you mentioned. The pull tabs actually mess with the grass roots stunting growth. I never cease to be amazed at the amount of trash in the parks as well as in the sand at the beach!!!

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