You see them sweeping beaches and parks, hunting for buried treasure.
They are relic hunters with metal detectors in hand and ear phones on their heads listening for the sweet clicking sound of discovery. Perhaps an old coin. Maybe a ring. More often, it is an old pop top from a beer can.
Then there are some true legendary finds, like the retired electrician in England who discovered a gold cup in what was later declared an early Bronze Age funerary site.
But many of these metal detector hobbyists feel they get no respect.
If they’re not at odds with archaeologists over the recovery of historical or pre-historic items, they are skirmishing with local officials who want to restrict their access to beaches and parks. Even reality shows like “Savage Family Diggers” and “Dig Wars” don’t show the hobbyists in a favorable light.
“Most of the time, it’s just change we find,” said Kathy Cartonia of Williamsville, who started detecting in 1988.
“What do they think we’re going to do with metal detectors? Wreck the place? It makes no sense.”
So it should come as no surprise that Erie County Parks, Recreation and Forestry Commissioner Troy Schinzel is working to implement a policy that would place a handful of county parks and both county-run golf courses off-limits to the use of metal detectors. The policy would also establish rules on the removal of items from public grounds.
“I am concerned about that activity occurring in our historic or older parks,” Schinzel said. “We have five heritage parks where I would not want this type of activity permitted: Chestnut Ridge, Akron, Como, Ellicott Creek and Emery.
Schinzel is not alone.
Across the country, municipalities including Volusia County in Florida, Cook County in Illinois and New York City have implemented policies to restrict metal detecting on public land.
In New York City, permits are required for metal detecting. And all significant items found must be reported to the park office. Upon request of a park official, a photo of the item must also be provided.
Metal detecting was banned in Florida’s Volusia County parks. It is generally permitted on most of Florida’s coastal beaches.
The ban in Cook County in Illinois that prohibits metal detecting in Forest Preserve areas also carries fines. It prohibits carrying a metal detector or any kind of digging tool into the preserves.
Nationally, metal detectors are off-limits in national parks, military battlefields and near federal monuments.
Buffalo has an ordinance in place that prohibits excavations in public parks without a permit, but nothing specific to metal detecting, said Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president of Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
“I’ve seen them out at Delaware Park detecting and thought it was kind of cute,” Herrera-Mishler said. “If they were digging too much and doing damage, of course they would be asked to leave. We can’t have them damaging the parks.”
The metal detectors that the hobbyists use are portable pieces of equipment that detect metal objects buried in the ground or underwater.
Entry-level metal detectors can locate metal objects buried three to six inches beneath the surface. Cost ranges from $50 to $5,000 for underwater competition models.
Detectors alert the hobbyist through a variety of clicks and alarms to the presence of buried metal. Hunters, most of whom use earphones, can distinguish between a tin can and buried coin by the sounds their detector makes.
There are from 300 to 400 metal detecting clubs throughout the United States, said Mark Schuessler, president of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archeological Clubs, a national club with a membership of 1,200.
And this weekend, treasure hunters from Ohio, Michigan, Canada, New Jersey and Massachusetts are gathering in Java Center for a dig at the Beaver Meadows Campgrounds to benefit the American Cancer Society. It marks the 15th meeting of the Genesee Valley Treasure Seekers, based in Rochester. Members of the Niagara Frontier Relic Hunters based in Buffalo will participate.
Beaver Meadows has hosted the two-day hunt for years, said owner Jeff Connolly. He described the hunters as meticulous in their removal of buried targets.
“It’s not like they’re using large equipment,” Connolly said. “It’s just basically a little garden shovel. And they’re very good about putting everything back. They set up the courses, plant coins, have their competition, and when they leave they pick everything up. You’d never know they were there.”
Diamond rings, old coins and historic items are memorable discoveries for the hobbyists, but that does not often occur, said Cartonia.
When she started detecting in 1988, she said she was one of a few women in the hobby.
These days, she uses a detector that cost her $189. “It’s good exercise, all that walking and bending and digging,” she said.
But recently, restrictions have been implemented on metal detecting activities, she said.
Her husband, Joseph, is president of Niagara Frontier Relic Hunters and the club sponsors an annual hunt that up until this year took place at Wendt Beach Park, a county-operated park in Derby.
Schinzel is familiar with the tournament.
“For years, the Relic Hunters went to Wendt Beach for their annual tournament,” Schinzel said. “They would camp and spend the night there, but we don’t permit camping at Wendt Beach. The only park we allow camping is Sprague Brook.
“We told them we did not have a problem with their event, and to my knowledge, it’s very minimal damage because they only go an inch below the soil to hide their coins. We were comfortable with what they were doing.”
But the group maintained they have been asked to leave public parks, including Chestnut Ridge and Cazenovia, even though members are careful to restore the ground they dig.
Local policy proposal
The Erie County policy could take effect in spring 2014 at the earliest. The proposal follows a few recent incidents where those using metal detectors have been asked to leave county and city parks after they were observed digging the ground to remove metal objects.
The policy that Schinzel proposes is modeled after the one in Monmouth County, N.J., where he worked before coming here.
In Monmouth County, all items found must be surrendered to the office of the park where the items were discovered. In addition, there are rules for removing and restoring sod. And the relic hunters are not allowed to dig deeper than six inches.
Before submitting the proposed policy for Erie County, Schinzel plans to consult with the county’s Department of Environment and Planning. He said he will also ask for input from the public.
Schuessler, the Attica-based president of a national detecting club, has 40 years of hunting under his belt. He hunts mostly on private property around older homes and farms.
Schuessler admits there are “a few bad apples” whose careless excavation of underground treasures results in property damage. But he also points to all the good deeds performed by those who find lost wedding rings, school rings and other valuable items for people at no charge. “You’ll find someone new who is digging huge holes, and we’ll teach him the proper way,” Schuessler said. “No one mentions all the cleanup we do. We get pop cans, pull tabs. It’s like we’re taking out the garbage. What is starting to be a problem is, they can’t justify the regulations. When we ask them to show us where the damage is, they cannot.”