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The metal detecting detective

metal spike

Dan Pool / Photos

Matt Rice is a Pickens Sheriff detective during the week and launches his own investigations into the history of old home places and other potential historical sites on the weekends. Shown above with a rusty file found near a collapsed building in Marble Hill.

Beep, beep, beep. Everywhere you step with a metal detector at the Old Jail on Main Street the device signals something underfoot. Some bit of iron or steel or maybe an old coin just waiting to be uncovered or not -- apparently there are a lot of lines and pipes running under that spot so you can’t go digging wildly.

In fact, there are so many indications of metal items it becomes pointless trying to guess which spot might hold the rare historical item and which is a 1970s pop-top.

Matt Rice, a metal detecting detective, recommends we abandon this site for places that can be handled better by a single person in an afternoon - though he acknowledges there is likely something of value causing his Garrett metal detector to light-up in at least one or two of the multitude of signals.

metal detectorIn real life Rice is a true detective, of the Pickens Sheriff’s Criminal Investigations Division. On the weekends, Rice is a historical detective who long had his sights on the elevated property where the jail sits on North Main Street. Rice said his preliminary research showed the property was a public gathering spot well before the building began being constructed in 1906, and thus a likely spot for historical, if not real, treasure. It should be noted we had obtained permission from the Pickens Historical Society for our search and Rice, like many metal detectors, follows a policy of only wanting credit for any historical finds, leaving the goods with the owner of the property.

Rice said he has never had to worry about what to do with something found that is modern, without historical significance, but high monetary value, such as an expensive watch. “I think the right thing to do is report it to the local police as found property and run something in the newspaper saying it was found, but after 30 days, you would get it.” 

Before we moved on to more manageable places, we dug up a very old, rusty nail with Rice demonstrating basic metal detecting. In the lingo of the hobby metal is often dropped, making it just “detecting.”

Rice’s detector (which runs around $400) has different tones depending on what type of metal it has detected and also indicates the depth. The nail was indicated as iron and a relic, a different tone would have signaled for a coin or for jewelry.

“It is just an old nail, but to me the question becomes what was it nailed into?” Rice said. “Was this from an earlier structure or something built in front of this jail?” Rice wants to organize a detector group outing at some point to better tackle the ample opportunity to dig for buried metal at the Old Jail.

For us on that Saturday, it was off to an old home place in Marble Hill where I had gotten permission to treasure hunt.

Rice said his basic method is to first do as much detective work as he can, much like his day job he acknowledges. There are surprisingly more old maps, photos and resources available to locate likely spots to search. Rice said he tries to zero-in on places where it would be likely something unusual was lost, dropped or simply left behind. He keeps an eye out for signs of early homesteads, primarily old chimneys or rocks left from a foundation. Old moonshine still sites or anyplace where trade was conducted are other spots he seeks out.

While we drive to the next spot, Rice explained that as a veteran, he saw the detectors regularly used in training exercises so he had an idea of their capability when given one himself. “We used them in the training looking for IEDs (explosive devices) but sometimes we found other stuff and that is where I became interested,” he said.

Rice was given his first metal detector for Father’s Day about 10 years ago and has been detecting ever since.

“I am history buff. I could very well have been a history teacher,” he said, indicating that the Civil War period was a particular favorite to study and to search for whatever metal evidence might still exist of troop activity in north Georgia.

In addition to the academic side of metal detecting, there is undeniably the excitement when the machine beeps. 

“We are all treasure hunters,” he said of fellow metal detectors. “It could be a 100-year-old nail or a five-year-old nickel. You just never know.”

At our next spot, we find a similar situation to the jail, too many beeps. This was the spot of a tornado many years ago and the ground is filled with tin from the roofs of destroyed homes/barns/sheds. We dig up several bits of twisted and torn metal before we hit on something interesting.

After digging down about an inch we come to the pointed end of a tool. Very rusted, it was possibly a small spike or maybe a chisel or it could have been a file. [Editor’s Note: After cleaning it up, Rice found it was a three-sided file.] There are several spots on the internet to post photos where other metal detectors will help identify items.]

Coins are considered a top find, particularly old ones that may mark the date of someone living at spot. Rings or other jewelry would also be a holy grail in metal detecting. 

“I would love to be able to give a family back a wedding ring that their grandmother dropped decades ago,” he said.

To date, Rice’s biggest recovered bounty turns out to be an old toy car from the 1950s. Rice gave the car to the Burnt Mountain property owner and they seemed genuinely happy to have returned a toy played with by one of their family more than 60 years ago.

Our third stop of the day was in the Grandview area (where we again had permission to go) at an old chimney in the middle of the woods; one of those leaning stone structures that catch you by surprise by being in such an isolated spot.

Here the hunt was more exciting as beeps were few and far between. Rice speculated that the cabin that stood in this lonely spot was built without metal nails. We found a few small metal items, mostly indistinguishable rusted bits and pieces of former tools or maybe hinges from the doors of the home.

We ended on a high note. It may not have been a real treasure and we didn’t know what its purpose was, but we unearthed a large iron ring, roughly the diameter of your hand with the fingers outstretched. It showed one worn side. Maybe some piece of a plow, fireplace kitchen, home tool or part of a door or gate. It was not exactly a gold coin, but it was something unique and authentic that had been buried until we came along. 

It’s easy to see how this hobby can draw you in. Not only do you want to know what that iron ring was but who used it and why did they leave it at the isolated cabin? It was also enjoyable being outside on the pleasant day. 

As a caution both the detective and this reporter later developed cases of poison ivy on hands and arms from digging among the roots of dormant plants.

For anyone interested, Rice used a Garrett Pro metal detector, a step or two up from the entry models. Rice suggested starting with one in the $300 to $2,000 range. Anything much cheaper would make the hobby frustrating to learn and there is no reason for a beginner to need a super-expensive model.