Buried Treasures | Stories Beneath Our Feet

Buried treasures from the past wait to be heard and found again.

By Julia Shipley

Apr 16 2015


Metal-detection equipment in hand,
Rick Comfort searches
a field in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson


Undisclosed location, Northern Vermont

Metal-detection equipment in hand, Rick Comfort searches a field in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Metal-detection equipment in hand,
Rick Comfort searches
a field in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

It’s early November, and I’m standing at the edge of a field where the earth has produced enough corn to get a farmer’s herd through the coming winter. Now three men are wandering through the frozen stubble, searching the land for another yield.

The woods surrounding the field are bare, except for the isolated glow of gold-needled tamaracks. The world feels slow and still. Farthest away, against the backdrop of shabby-kneed mountains, Lance Comfort paces somberly. Dave Linck meanders the midground, and Rick Comfort is nearby, staring at the earth intently as his boots crunch through shin-high stubble. A bluejay shrieks. A sortie of geese honk as they coast into the field, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who hears them. All the men are wearing headphones, listening to heavy metal. What they’re hearing isn’t Metallica or Iron Maiden, though; it’s the song of lost things, old things, pieces of the past: treasures.

From left: Dave Linck, Rick Comfort, and Lance Comfort take a break from their treasure hunt in a cornfield in northern Vermont.
From left: Dave Linck, Rick Comfort, and Lance Comfort take a break from their treasure hunt in a cornfield in northern Vermont.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

The brothers Comfort, Lance and Rick, each wield a Minelab metal detector, while Dave brandishes a White’s Electronics model as they ramble around this 40-acre patch, letting the ground speak to them. The song they’re hearing is mostly a series of hoots, beeps, and warbles triggered by iron, a ferrous metal, which they ignore, hoping instead for the promising falsetto notes signaling nickel, copper, and silver.

I’m waiting for any of them to quit drifting and kneel. Rick is having a lucky morning, so I’m sticking by him. Every 10 minutes or so, he hears that heart-quickening pitch and pulls the shovel off his hip to dig up a tight circle of dirt. He lifts it up like a plug and sets it down beside the hole. Then he kneels and uses his detachable sensor, holding it like a microphone to the earth, snuffling it like a pig snout to learn where his discovery lies: in the hole or the pile beside it.

The “Brothers and Others,” as they call themselves, have been hunting through Vermont’s dirt for more than a decade. Each year, Rick, who works for FedEx, along with retirees Lance and Dave, devise two detecting expeditions. They meet once in the early spring and once in the fall. In the off months, Lance and Dave, both active members of their local historical societies, study old atlases and examine town records. They peer at historical and topographical maps to determine the best hunting grounds, the most trampled plots of yesteryear: stagecoach stops, old boardinghouses, farm dumps, churchyards, places where the residue of everyday life—tools, coins, jewelry, buttons— might still reside. Lance always wanted to be an archaeologist, and even while pursuing an administrative career, he racked up scores of intriguing finds in his spare time: a galaxy of buttons, a commissary of soldier’s things, an exchequer’s purse of ancient coins.

Lance Comfort’s collection of Civil War finds includes buttons, belt buckles, and other metal artifacts.
Lance Comfort’s collection of Civil War finds includes buttons, belt buckles, and other metal artifacts.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

Yet all these treasures represent hundreds of hours of listening and listening. Now, as Rick homes in on his signal, hunching down by the bare soil and stubble, he detaches a microphone-like probe from his detector and plunges it into the ground. As the beeping grows ever stronger and more constant, he trowels out more dirt, searching for whatever it is, noting that “a diamond ring makes the same sound as a pop top, so you gotta dig.”

Eventually, from all of that obscuring dirt, something impossibly small and old and lost reveals itself: His first find of the day is a tiny bell. Using his pinky finger and then a grimy toothbrush he carries for this work, he clears the bell’s mouth and gives it a shake. “Could be its first jingle in a hundred years,” he says. He tucks it into a clear plastic envelope and stashes it in his pouch. Then he refills the hole, tamps it, stands up, and resumes detecting.

Ten minutes later he crouches again. This time he unearths a large, flat coat button from the 1700s. Then he finds a bent, whitish smudge of metal—old lead pipe.

Dave Linck searches a wooded area in Vermont’s Caledonia County.
Dave Linck searches a wooded area in Vermont’s Caledonia County.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

Dave starts finding things, too, albeit less ancient: first an iron washer, then a soda can, then a grommet. “Some pioneer lost this from his Nike,” he quips.

And then, just 20 feet from this debris, Dave unearths a treasure—a “large copper”—an antique coin the size of a Necco wafer. Dave wipes it off on his jeans and presses it into my palm, this chilly 250-year-old piece of currency. This is the coin’s life story: It’s transacting again after prolonged dormancy, shuttling between warm hands. How many pockets and hands has it passed through? What did it pay for? Who had it last, and lost it, until it surfaced this morning?

Dave examines it carefully and pronounces it a King George III British halfpenny, minted before the Revolutionary War, meaning that it crossed the ocean on a sailing ship and passed from person to person till it persisted with someone who likely walked or rode a horse into this North Country valley, some 3,000 miles from London. Though only four inches below the surface of the soil, it has outlasted kings and presidents, soldiers and settlers, and years and years of corn harvests.

Next, Lance finds a man’s coat button—a disc similar to the halfpenny, but lighter, without marks, and with only the tiny hasp where thread would have kept it close to the fabric. “Tombac,” Lance pronounces proudly—which means it’s made of tin, lead, and arsenic, a material coin makers used from the late 1700s to early 1800s.

It’s like an advanced-level Easter-egg hunt, where the best eggs were hidden anywhere from 100 to 200 years ago or longer, unintentionally, by predecessors who could never have anticipated how diligently these three men would search for facets of their ordinary lives.

Craftsbury Community Care Center, Craftsbury, Vermont

Twelve seniors are all gathered around a dining-room table when Dave Linck arrives with something tucked under his arm. Silverware, napkin holders, and condiments are whisked aside to make way for the shoebox he places on the table. Forgoing elaborate introductions, he gets down to business: “I’m here to share some items with you.” Challenging the memories of the sharpest 80- and 90-year-olds in the group, Dave opens the box in hopes that these resident experts can further elucidate his local findings. He begins with an easy mystery.

“Anyone know what this is?” he asks, holding up a small capsule of metal. “If you had an old car, what might this be?”

They stare, dumbfounded, understandably; it’s a license-plate illuminator from the 1930s. Next he holds up something that looks like the handle of a screwdriver. Again—it could be anything. Turns out, it’s a valve cap for a tire, circa 1920s.

“And this piece is heavy. Anyone know what this is? It’s a piece of brass; it’s got a big hole here and threads. For years we were digging these up; we thought they were bedpost tops, so we just threw them in our pouches and brought ’em home. Just this year we figured it out.

“Think about it,” he coaxes. “We’re finding them in fields. What if I’ve got an ox with sharp points on his horns, or a bull?” Then he reveals the answer: “It’s an ox knob!” And he pantomimes the act of screwing the knob onto each gore-threatening horn.

“How about this?” Dave asks. “Have you ever been chased by a bull? This can be opened up and punched through the bull’s nostril as a ring.”

And another treasure. “Ladies, does this look familiar?” They all nod affirmatively—it’s a purse closure. Dave pops its metal jaws open and shut; the fabric is long gone.

“Now here’s something. For a couple of years we didn’t know what they were. We found them on a hillside, in a field …” It looks like a plain ring. “It’s an umbrella slide—the push-up ring! Now why is that out there?”

“Yes, how did it get into the middle of a field?” one woman asks.

As the group ponders this mystery, a woman who seemed to be dozing snaps up and says, “A picnic!”

“Bingo!” Dave grins. “They had a parasol to keep out the sun.”

He continues unpacking artifacts; a sterling-silver cigarette case is next. “Have you ever taken a cigarette from a case like this?” Dave asks the woman closest to him.

She looks aghast. “Not lately! But I was around when those were in fashion.”

“How ’bout these, gentlemen?” They’re suspender clasps. “If you’re working around an old homesite, you’re bound to find these.” Dave holds out some more palm-size mysteries: a horse’s bridle rosettes, a Boy Scout’s neckerchief clip. Then he holds up his prize; it’s the size of a credit card, with tiny wheels and a toothpick-size stylus. He found four of these in the same little area; it’s a Stevenson Pocket Adder, patented in 1873. At the town clerk’s office, he learned that the man who lived on that land in the 1930s was a CPA. Perhaps he’d used these in his early days when he was just getting started as an accountant.

“And here’s a medal for marksmanship prior to World War II,” Dave continues. “It cost $1.42—probably for rifle or artillery.” A man with cataract glasses says, “Yes, I got one in camp in 1941.”

Dave asks, “Know where it is now?”

“Nope,” the veteran answers.

“Ah, the most mundane things bring back memories,” Dave sighs as he dangles a final item in front of the woman who remembers cigarette cases. “Oh,” she gasps as her cheeks flush, “it’s one of those garter clips.”

Now the dining table is littered with finds like fillings pried out of the earth’s mouth. These clues to past lives, these bits of metal, staple our present day against another’s time.

Losers and Weepers:
Craftsbury Historical Society, Craftsbury, Vermont

In “A Forgotten Poet,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov, his character, Konstantin Perov, writes, “If metal is immortal then somewhere / there lies the burnished button I lost / upon my seventh birthday in a garden. / Find me that button and my soul will know / that every soul is saved and stored and treasured.”

If only Konstantin had lost his button in Craftsbury, for within the town’s approximately 6-by-6-mile terri­tory, Dave and his trusty detector have recovered all manner of immortal metals, including belt buckles that once snugged against bellies and thimbles that capped fingertips. The basement of the town’s historical society abounds with burnished objects discovered in yards and fields across town. The finds are piled in groups: locks, bullets, watches, knives, hose ends … yes, buttons … and my favorite: a whole fleet of toy cars. “Including this one,” Dave says, “the one I found out by your big tree.”

I look at it and imagine a child in the 1940s playing out by the oak, then being called in for supper, abandoning his car, and somehow losing track of it in the tall grass, as the oak grows and the years pass. Then Dave hears it 70 years later as he sweeps his detector around what’s now my lawn. The earth beneath us is like a mind full of copper and zinc memories, pieces of a gigantic puzzle. I trace the car’s fender with my finger,  wondering to whom this treasure belonged, and who he grew up to be.