Sunday, September 30, 2007

Hunting Relics Modern Style

When I'm retired, one of the things on my "to do" list is signing up with an overseas archaeological dig as a grunt worker. Yes, these people have got it - the lure of discovering "hidden treasure" calls to us all...

Couple turns relic-hunting hobby into business

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/17/07

looks around and quickly points to what looks like a very old brass bugle, priced at $45.

"How old is that?" the man asks. "I've got one from the Crimean War that looks just like it."

19th century, but I think it's more likely World War I, or it could be just a plain old fake."

The aging baby boomer lifts it to his lips and starts tooting, squeezing out a few wheezy bugle calls. And he's hooked, offering $30, which the Holcombes accept, knowing it could be worth a lot more — or less.

That's the way it goes in the antiques business, which Butch and Anita Holcombe went into a few years ago when he decided to quit his job as a machinist and his wife got laid off from an administrative position.

But it's not their little Greybird Relics shop in the Big Shanty Antique Market in Kennesaw that pays their bills, or the Victorian jewelry, 19th-century dominoes, ancient coins or Civil War bullets they sell on their Web site. It's the slick-covered American Digger magazine they started "on a wing and a prayer" in January 2005.

They felt publishing might produce a more predictable income than selling relics.

What's more, Butch was tired of 10-hour days, and she'd lost her job.  So far, she says, "the magazine has struck a chord out there, with 1,600 subscribers around the world already."

Bigger and thicker than the average Newsweek, the magazine is filled with pictures of artifacts, such as patent medicine "miracle cure" bottles, 15th-century coins from Eastern Europe, Victorian jewelry and all sorts of relics dating from the War of 1812 to the Civil War.

It's also full of advertisements from companies that sell metal detectors and books for history buffs.

"We're not getting rich, but we're doing well," Butch says. "We've tapped into something out there."

The magazine's most popular feature is called "Just Dug," several pages of pictures of relics unearthed around the world, including stuff dug up around Marietta.

Much of it, such as a folding mirror found by Ed Travis of Cobb County, dates from the Civil War era, dug up by members of the North Georgia Relic Hunters Association or the Georgia Research & Recovery Club.  Butch says most people think "the relics hobby it's just Southerners looking for Civil War stuff, but there are relic hunters all over this country, and the world, too."

Janet Levy, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, says artifact hunting as a hobby goes back at least to the days of a Babylonian king 2,500 years ago.

But the hobby is exploding now in popularity in part because technology has made it easier for buried metallic objects to be found, says Randall Miller, a history professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"The Internet has changed the hobby," he says. "People are digging and hunting for relics not just on battlefields, but in old cisterns and privies, which can be gold mines for very old bottles."

Miller and other academics say the magazine is tapping into the same phenomenon that has made "Antiques Roadshow" such a hit on PBS.  Avid relic hunters for years, the Holcombes went to Virginia in 2004 to try to find how to turn "the hobby we love into a magazine to cater to people like us."

Butch learned to use graphic design software to lay out the pages, Anita began pitching ads to metal detector companies, and they took the finished product to Star Printing in Acworth.

"It's even surprised us," Butch says. "We have subscribers in 48 states."

They send copies to U.S. warships and artifact clubs and organizations such as the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs, the Authentic Artifact Collectors Association and the Smithsonian Institution.

"We got a Web site up right away for the magazine so other groups could link to it," Anita says. "Payment for articles includes three comp copies and a free ad, if the author desires. Artifact hunters like to show off their finds."

Miller says most people interested in hunting for artifacts are in their 50s and 60s.

In New Mexico and Arizona, people look for pottery and Native American artifacts. Some folks walk beaches with metal detectors, looking for jewelry lost by bathers. And in the West, people hunt for gold and items from cowboy days, says Jerry Smith of Boom Town & Relic Hunters in northeastern Washington.

"We have unearthed rare saloon tokens, gold nuggets and solid gold $1 pieces worth thousands of dollars," he says.

"There are magazines out there for all sorts of things," Butch Holcombe says. "Ours concentrates on things that are newly dug up. The real interest is in seeing what's just been found because it says a lot about what's still out there. And there's an awful lot."

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