By Lane Page
11:21 AM EDT, October 27, 2011
What on earth was an 18th-century Chinese coin doing buried in a wooded patch of Columbia open space?
Its finder, Rob La Luna, will probably never know. It's the most unexpected and surprising discovery he has made during his avocational hunts for missing metallica, including Civil War artifacts and other objects that in this section of the country could well go back far earlier.
Still, around these parts, "the Civil War is everywhere," he says. We're no Antietam or Gettysburg, but, he says of the troops, "they'd camp for a day on the way somewhere else, or stay two months."
Route 1 is his El Dorado. "Every time I see a construction site I go in -- with permission, of course," says the Owen Brown resident, whose day job is information security analysis at the Department of Defense.
That "site-seeing" is how he found the Elkridge location, now a housing development, of an encampment where regiments of the 8th New York and 6th Massachusetts infantry overlooked and guarded the vital Thomas Viaduct from Confederate attack.
A 6-pound cannonball (no fuse, no worries) makes the point, verified by shells and bullets. Buttons from both units, an eagle breastplate, a sword drag from the bottom of a sheath and even a frying pan support it. La Luna was able to walk the grounds, finding trenches where soldiers hid as they kept their eyes out for Rebel encroachment.
Another of La Luna's favorite areas is the main encampment in Relay, where Union Gen. Benjamin Butler occupied the train station. "It's like Annapolis. Everywhere you look you find something," such as assorted .69-caliber bullets of the period, some French-made, and a mysterious object found right on the tracks dated 1862 and still holding a tiny piece of cloth tucked inside. Luckily he and fellow members of the Maryland Artifact Recovery Society (MARS) help each other with identification of unknowns at monthly meetings (although no one has figured this one out yet).
The area behind Arundel Mills has been another treasure-trove, he says, since it was the contemporary equivalent of Aberdeen Proving Grounds as well as a staging site from which armaments were sent to the front.
He's found Civil War bullets at the Blandair park site in Long Reach and an 1882 $1 coin at the site of the recently constructed church on Route 175 in Thunder Hill.
Then there are the Spanish silver reales dating from the 1780s found just south of Baltimore, one with a hole drilled in it. Why? Quien sabe. It’s just another one of those "dirt fishing" mysteries.
The treasure hunter's oldest discovery, earlier if not as distant in origin as that Chinese coin, is from an Annapolis site near Route 50 and Riva Road, now covered by town houses, where Camp Parole was once located. Dating from long before that Civil War purpose, though, are the complete knee buckle and part of another one dating back to Colonial days when men sported knee britches.
From the same site is a bell from a horse bridle with a maker’s mark from the 1700s. Now hanging on his door, "it took over 200 years to jingle again," La Luna says.
Perhaps his flashiest find occurred last winter, between rounds of a planted hunt in Pennsylvania. During these quests, a field is filled with silver coins and tokens for folks like La Luna to detect -- "a big boys' Easter egg hunt," he calls it -- and in addition to making his $130 entry fee back and more, in nearby woods he just happened upon a 14-karat gold ring studded with 12 diamonds.
To be fair, he runs ads in local papers, and if no one claims and can identify the booty it's finders keepers. Currently the ring adorns the hand of a friend's mother, while his wife, Tina, sports a delicate 14-karat gold and amethyst ring discovered in the Whiskey Bottom area of North Laurel, near the racetrack. A maker's mark places it to mid- to late-1800s New York.
'The pirate in me'
Since moving to Virginia from New York in 1985 and learning that a brother-in-law's family had lived on their farm since the 1800s, La Luna began to feel there had to be something there. For $20, he picked up a used metal detector via an ad in the D.C. City Paper. "It must have been the pirate in me," he muses.
But if the machine is a metal detector, the one who wields it must be ... a metal detective. By now La Luna has four, each doing something different, such as identifying the metal in question, the most recent for detection underwater. If anything proves his enthusiasm and determination it must be standing chest deep in the surf using a long-handled stainless-steel scoop for retrieval. With gold prices above $1,500 an ounce, it can become addictive.
"If something registers, you put your foot on it and hold," he says.
La Luna is also a hired gun, seeking jewelry lost gardening or car keys dropped while shoveling snow, or the engagement ring that flew off during a Frisbee game. The service operates on a reward basis, which in the case of a ring turned up within five minutes was a fine dinner out.
True, it's not in quite the same league as the 300 1-pound silver bars buried in a yard near Orlando during the Depression found by a friend of La Luna’s who was given three of them in return. But there's always that chance.
He targets old buildings (or their sites) and always looks for big trees where things may have fallen out of the pockets of people seeking shade, or might even have been landmarks where families buried their savings in Mason jars during uncertain times.
Is he worried that sharing his enthusiasm for the hobby will just mean more competition? Not really, since nothing is ever picked clean, he believes.
For instance, he's been pondering the site of old Spurrier's Tavern somewhere near the state police Waterloo barracks at the junction of routes 1 and 175, where Washington is supposed to have slept.
As for that Chinese coin -- did it arrive in the pocket of an immigrant? La Luna has dated it to the reign of Shih Tsung, the Yung-Cheng period of the Ch'ing dynasty, 1723-1735.
"That's what makes it such fun," he says. "You never know what you'll find."
To see what La Luna digs next, check out his Facebook page, Finders Seekers, at https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Finders-Seekers/194209997301755.
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