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If you’re fortunate enough to live in the northeastern United States, or are planning a trip to the sites of the Revolutionary War, you can hunt for relics firsthand in an attempt to discover antiquities from the 1700s. Many battlegrounds and historical sites are under federal control, meaning that you can’t retrieve artifacts from the location due to federal law, but some states do allow retrieval on state lands with a permit.


Cities and counties may have their own rules, and you can always join a Passport in Time hunt to discover antiquities anywhere controlled by the United States Forest Service. Remember that private lands always require permission from the landowner, even if the city has given you a permit for access to local sites.

Lexington and Concord

The “shot heard round the world” kicked off the Revolutionary War at the North Bridge in Middlesex County, Mass. The Battle of Lexington and Concord wasn’t just contained to those two locations, however. Since these two sites are dotted with federally protected and state-controlled areas, hunt for relics in nearby Arlington, Cambridge and Lincoln. If you decide to break out the metal detectors, remember that state law requires a permit for their use on any property that isn’t privately owned.

 

There’s one great tip for approaching private landowners in Middlesex County. This area is awash with researchers, Revolutionary War buffs and other students of history, and most love to learn more about their property and how it contributed to the American Revolution. Others may have something to teach inquisitive relic hunters. Bring along your maps and notes about why you chose that particular location, and be prepared to engage in long discussions with your hosts if they choose to accept you prospecting on their lands.

Bunker Hill

Another Massachusetts location, Bunker Hill was located in Charlestown. While most of the fighting took place on Breed’s Hill, the name of the smaller Bunker Hill stuck. The area has since become a part of the City of Boston proper, and any public relic hunting requires the proper permits from the city as well as any state or county permits you may have. Due to Boston’s historical significance, these permits are difficult to obtain without a background in scientific research or becoming part of a local preservation society. Check the websites of local clubs before you head out to see if you can join in a sanctioned relic hunt in the area.

 

The level of historical significance also means that private homeowners in the Boston area are unlikely to be as open to artifact hunters as those in other areas. Whenever the city finds a new cache of treasures, such as Native American and Revolutionary relics in Boston Commons, it brings amateur hunters out of the woodwork. Not all ask permission politely. As with Lexington and Concord, bring your info about the area. Also, dress professionally and leave your tools in the car until you get permission. Explain the techniques you use and how it leaves the ground in almost exactly the same state as before, especially if you’re using minimally invasive plug digging. Also, offer to cart off any rusted metal or other hazards you find while relic hunting.

Trenton

George Washington and Nathanael Greene led the charge at the Battle of Trenton. This relatively small-scale battle turned out to have significant weight on future of the Revolutionary War. The tales of the enemy Hessians coming out of the region later became an inspiration for the headless horseman of “Sleepy Hollow” fame. Washington crossed the Delaware River from the North, making the banks of the river a favored spot for relic hunters and history fans, but artifact retrieval from state and federal lands is illegal in New Jersey, and even archaeologists and renowned schools must obtain a permit. If you find anything that might be at least 100 years old in your adventures on public lands, leave it be and report it if you are able.

 

New Jersey requires anyone prospecting on private lands to have written proof granting access. Enforcement officials who see metal detectors on private lands can challenge the users to see proof of address or this written proof of permission. Many homeowners in the area are avid treasure hunters themselves, and New Jersey has a wealth of metal detecting clubs and organizations to help navigate the tricky laws of the area or help out-of-towners meet up with willing landowners. Go in late spring or summer, when you can avoid the treacherous ice and winds that made Washington’s crossing so memorable.

Saratoga

The Battles of Saratoga took place in two primary locations. At Freeman’s Farm, the British forces took a solid beating when stopping the advance of the American Continental Army. Almost a month later, at Bemis Heights, the American forces won a decisive victory over the British as the Northern Campaign progressed. Heading to Saratoga County, where most of the fighting took place, can give you a wealth of options for finding Revolutionary War relics but only on private lands. On top of the federal law that defines antiquities at 100 years of age, the State of New York has a separate law that defines them at 50 years of age. Meaning, at this point, memorabilia from WWII, the Korean War and some of the Vietnam conflict is off-limits if found on state lands.

 

Respect is the name of the game when seeking to relic hunt in Saratoga County. New York is still home to door-to-door salesmen, and few landowners like strangers appearing unexpectedly on their front doorsteps. Wherever possible, try to get introductions from a local historical society or metal-detecting club. These can help smooth the interactions and ensure you don’t give homeowners the wrong idea. Remember to leave your kit in the car until you have permission to use it, and don’t smoke or bring plastic bags full of notes with you when you arrive. Smoking can make you look like a fire liability, and plastic bags are more likely to lead others to think you’re going to litter than pack away any trash you find.

Yorktown

The Battle of Yorktown, the Siege of Yorktown and the Surrender at Yorktown all describe different stages of the drawn-out conflict that took place at the end of the American Revolution. Virginia follows New York when it comes to very stringent state laws, but instead of defining a period of time, its laws focus on disturbing the soil itself. Investigation and exploration is encouraged, but merely disturbing the dirt around where items at least 100 years old may lie can see you charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor under state law. This applies to all state-owned property, including all parks and public lands. These laws were put into place not to specifically protect Revolutionary War artifacts but to stop those scavenging for Civil War relics without proper permissions or permits.

 

As with all relic hunting, private property owners provide the best bet for locating artifacts without running afoul of the law. Virginia also requires written permission for metal-detector use on private lands, and the same Class 1 misdemeanor may apply when it is not provided upon request. When it comes to prospecting in Virginia, the best thing you can do is call or email ahead and strike up a conversation with landowners. Local clubs can help you get a foot in the door, but you need to convince local homeowners to trust you before they’ll allow you on their property. Bring along a copy of a written agreement, and specify in writing that you’ll do no damage and cart away all litter or unwanted metal you find.

 

Digging in the dirt is only half the fun. Preserving relics found with metal detectors allows them to look their best and become showcase pieces in your collection. Research exactly what materials you’re working with, and ask at local clubs or online for the best methods of preservation. Remember to thank landowners for allowing you access, and offer to share pictures and updates for any items you find. The relationships you build and the stories you get to tell are a very important part of preserving history from the 18th century.

 

About the Author Avery Taylor Phillips – Avery is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.