Metal Detecting Relics and Superstitions

Metal Detecting Relics and Superstitions

Since the beginning of time, Man has been superstitious. One definition of superstition is ‘any blindly accepted belief or notion.’ All civilizations have had beliefs that are accepted but not actually based on reason or knowledge.  As children, we learn from our parents that horseshoes are ‘good luck’ or that “If you see a black cat cross the road, it’s bad luck.” We don’t question those beliefs passed on from generation to generation and simply accept some superstitions as the truth. 

As metal detectorists, we often find artifacts and relics left behind from our ancestors. Many of those relics have stories to tell which is one of the reasons so many of us enjoy finding relics while metal detecting. Another cool part of our hobby is the Research we do and the information we come across while trying to identify some of the items we find.

Interestingly enough, during my research efforts over the years I have come across a few hill-folk superstitions that include some of the relics we tend to find on our metal detecting adventures:

Old Pocket Knives

Eventually we all find pocket knives when metal detecting.  There was a time when every man and boy carried a pocket knife for many uses.  I remember getting my first pocket knife when I was 7 years old.  My uncle gave it to me, along with a few rules, and I carried that knife proudly in my pocket.  That was a different time and place, but did you know that back in the old days, no man would even think of giving a steel blade to a friend as a gift because to do so would sever their friendship? Instead it was believed that whenever a knife changed hands that it must be paid for, regardless of how minimal the payment.

Spoons, Spoons Everywhere!

Table Spoons are a common find at old homesteads and house sites.  They tend to sound good in your headphones and every now and then we find a silver spoon in the plug, but more often than not spoons are just another common relic that we find often.  At one time though, there was a superstition that you should never pick up a spoon lying in the road.  The belief was that unlucky women would sometimes throw away a spoon believing that their bad luck would pass on to the person that picks up the spoon.  If finding those darn spoons didn’t already annoy you, then this bit of information might be reason enough for you to leave them right where you found them… in hopes of increasing your own luck.


No matter where we metal detect we find all kinds of buttons, from civil war buttons to overalls buttons. Those items have interesting histories of their own, but a hundred years ago, common buttons were given as gifts of good luck no matter what color or material the button was made of.  So the next time you find a button while metal detecting you can smile because according to tradition, you have been blessed with good luck.

In the Ozark mountains it was customary for young girls to collect buttons from their friends. They would string the buttons together making a necklace called a Charm string.

Charm strings not only brought good luck to the wearer but also served as a memory book for those who could not read or write a diary.  It wasn’t unheard of for safety pins to be in high demand by the school girls after having given away all of the buttons off of their dresses.   Who knew that some of those common buttons we find metal detecting could have such tradition attached to them?

Horse Shoes

Most of us were taught that horseshoe’s bring good luck, but that hasn’t always been the case historically. Many old timers believed that if a man finds a horse shoe with the closed end towards him that he ‘might as well leave it lay,’ to avoid impending bad luck. However, if the open end is toward the finder he will sometimes spit on it and throw it over his left shoulder believing that it will bring good fortune. Or, he may hang the horseshoe from a fence or tree and say “Hang there all my bad luck!”

Like the bad luck spoons, the belief is that whoever touches the hanging horseshoe would take the bad luck with them.  Superstitious old timer’s wouldn’t touch a hanging horseshoe for any amount of money.

Witch Wigglers

Many of the early pioneers and  Hill-Folk believed that certain people could locate underground water sources by “conjuring” with forked sticks called ‘witch sticks’.  Those who practiced what we now call dousing were known as water witches or witch wigglers, even though the forked switches they carried were known as “witch sticks” they had nothing to do with witches at all.

Regardless on one’s personal beliefs on the subject of locating water with sticks, there is no doubt that the Witch Wigglers were sincere believers in their ability to locate underground water.  Many of the really old wells across the USA that still exist today were located by Witch Wigglers.

Just like treasure hunter’s of today, many hillfolk were also interested in the search for lost or buried items, and some of them tried to use the witch stick in their quests to strike it rich by finding hidden treasure.

Witching for Gold with Doodlebugs

The practice of witching for gold with Doodlebugs was somewhat different than witching for water.  It is said that a switch loaded with metal will not react to water, or to any other substance except the particular metal which is attached to the stick.

If a person was looking for buried gold he would fasten a gold ring to the end of his stick. If it was silver that he expected to find he would split the end of the wand and insert a silver coin.  If he was searching for mixed ores he would uses two different metals, usually a dime and penny. Two witch sticks thus equipped for treasure hunting were sometimes called “doodlebugs”.

Despite some people’s doubt that doodlebugs actually work, there are still some old witch wigglers around who still make and sell doodlebugs today.

Copper the Illness Stopper

Many early settlers believed that copper held medicinal properties and would wear copper in various forms on their body. It was believed that a copper ring, or other piece of copper such as a penny in a sack carried next the skin would ward off attacks of rheumatism and other diseases. Some old timer’s would even wind pieces of copper wire around their ankles hidden under their socks for added protection against various ailments. Rumor has it that in the early days the telegraph companies had difficulty dealing with folks cutting off pieces of copper wire for this purpose.

In later years, younger generations came to believe that a copper ring works just as well as pure copper, but the old-timers still swear by their wire anklets.

Nails, Everywhere!

We find nails everywhere that we metal detect.  All types of nails, nails that serve many purposes. In the early 1800’s it was believed that nails taken from hanging gallows would protect a man from venereal disease and death.

Old time Blacksmith’s would hammer the gallow nails into rings to be worn on a finger and were popular into the 1940’s among military soldiers and could possibly be found at military camps and battlefields.

Mail Order Rings are Preferred

Today it is customary to go to a jewelry store to pick out and purchase a wedding ring, but that wasn’t always the case.  Many old timers once believed that it was best to purchase a wedding ring from a mail order because they believed that ordinary ‘store bought’ rings could have absorbed bad luck from someone who had tried it on in the store.

Ironically though, many of these mail order rings that we find when metal detecting are marked as gold, but are in fact gold plated copper or brass.  Regardless, the sentiment was the same.  According to folklore, often the husband wore a gold plated ring for fear of losing his ring while working on the farm, while the wife would wear a real gold ring.  True or not, monetary value didn’t matter as much as the vow surrounding the rings, and many of our ancestors didn’t have the money for extras like buying gold rings anyway. So, in a sense those plated rings might be seen as even more special since they symbolize an unconditional love for each other still, regardless of their financial status

We Still Got Our Corpse Money

As mentioned above, many back woods hill folk were literally ‘dirt poor’ but many of them still had at least a couple of large silver coins. An old Arkansas nurse once recalled how an old man she was attending to had died, so she put pieces of paper under his eyelids to help keep his eyes closed.  That angered the family prompting them to object by saying “We may be on assistance, but we still got our corpse money!” as they brought out two silver dollars and laid them on the dead man’s eyelids.  Apparently, some families kept large coins set aside for this purpose through many generations.  Could it be that some of those silver half and dollar coins that we find at old house sites are in fact some of those ‘corpse money’ coins?

Bad Luck to Carry Anything out of a Graveyard

Many hill folk believed that it is bad luck to carry anything out of a graveyard.  It was acceptable to move shrubs or flowers from one grave to the next but believed that the person who carried an item from inside to outside the gates would suffer bad luck and bury a member of his own family within a year.

If you’re the superstitious type, that’s one more reason to not metal detect in cemeteries! You don’t want any bad juju do ya? lol

Final Thoughts:

Many of the relics we find have superstitions and folk lore attached to them.  The next time you find an old gold plated ring at an old homestead you might wonder if it was one of those mail order wedding rings, or if that coin with a hole in it was worn to ward off illness or to bring good luck.  That’s what makes our hobby so interesting, the relics we find while metal detecting often tell a story of the people and places of days gone by.   Who knew that some of the most common relics we find had so many various superstitions attached to them?

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