New state group goes hunting for history
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Dec 25, 2013 | 5475 views |  0 comments | 100 100 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Heath Jones uses a metal detector as he searches for artifacts near his home in Cleburne County. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Heath Jones uses a metal detector as he searches for artifacts near his home in Cleburne County. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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Heath Jones shows a handmade "frog gig" he found using a metal detector near his home in Cleburne County. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Heath Jones shows a handmade "frog gig" he found using a metal detector near his home in Cleburne County. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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On a recent day off from work, Heath Jones was exploring an old graveyard in Cleburne County with his metal detector.

He was looking for clues about where the now-missing church that supported the cemetery used to stand. He might find old coins or keys, old nails or some other piece of the church’s history. He might find a bottle cap from a recent party in the area. The fun is in the search, said Jones, a Heflin resident.

History and metal detecting aren’t an obvious match, but Jones and some other people he met through his affiliations with other metal-detecting associations have the common interest of using their metal detectors to dig up history. So, Jones founded the Alabama Archeometalology Historical Society in April to give them a forum to discuss their finds. He spread the word through a Facebook page.

The Old Liberty Church used to be on what is now County Road 414. When he was a boy, the cemetery was overgrown and almost forgotten, Jones said. Now it’s mowed once or twice a year, Jones believes, by county staff. Searching through the headstones, Jones has found graves for soldiers killed during the Civil War, but the site of the church has been lost over time. Jones said he has always been intrigued by it.

“So much history in Alabama is undocumented,” Jones said. “It needs to be discovered. The story needs to be told.”

There are now 14 members in Jones’ group, including Ray Camp, who accidently discovered a Native American burial in Wetumpka with his metal detector, Jones said.

Camp said he was testing some new equipment he’d bought Dec. 15 on farmland in Wetumpka. He wasn’t looking for anything and didn’t expect to find anything historic, especially in fields that had been plowed and seeded for the last 20 years. So when he got a reading similar to one he’d expect for a can, he stopped to dig it up just to make sure he was reading his new equipment properly. But he found copper, beads, bones and teeth. When he found the human teeth, Camp stopped digging and called police. They called professional archaeologists, who determined the find was a Creek burial site, Camp said.

“This is by far one of the strangest and most incredible finds I’ve done,” Camp said.

It’s gratifying to pull something out of the ground that’s been buried for more than 100 years, he said, but the hunt is what keeps him detecting.

The members do a lot of research, Camp and others said, which helps them locate properties that might contain historical metal artifacts. It also helps them identify their finds and put those finds in perspective, they said.

For instance, Mike Roper, another member of the society, said he found a Union soldier’s Civil War-era uniform button in Cherokee County, something he couldn’t understand because there had been no battles there as far as he knew. He eventually found the answer to his questions in Gaylesville. During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman massed his troops in Gaylesville before his infamous March to the Sea through Georgia, Roper said.

“He planned his march through Georgia in Gaylesville, Ala.,” Roper said.

That piece of information isn’t found in the history books, but it was part of the city’s lore, he said.

Mark Schuessler of Attica, N.Y., president of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archeology Clubs, said the two interests are very similar and metal detectorists work closely with archeologists when they find historical artifacts.

“We want the same thing in the end,” Schuessler said. “We just have different ways of getting to it.”

The federation, an advocacy group for metal detecting, has about 2,000 members, Schuessler said, but there are probably hundreds of thousands of metal detectorists.

However, there are many different aspects to the hobby, including those who look for newer lost items, beachcombers and historical-artifact hunters, Schuessler said.

Many people take on the hobby alone, but some, such as those in the newly formed society, like to get together to talk about their finds or to hunt together, he said.

Jones, who has organized some group hunts, said he enjoys the camaraderie of hunting with other people.

“There’s a back and forth,” Jones said. “Kind of like when guys go golfing together.”

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.
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