KENANSVILLE — The history of a land is often thought of, when it’s thought of at all, as something far removed from everyday life, a series of dry facts and decaying memories buried in the dust and shadows of the past.
For a few enterprising individuals, however, history is not only, to paraphrase William Faulkner, not history at all, but is in fact a living puzzle whose scattered pieces are waiting to be discovered just beneath their feet.
For nearly three decades, Chip Hardy has counted himself among those curious few men and women known as relic hunters, or “diggers,” who roam fields and riverbanks brandishing mildewed maps and metal detectors in search of clues to the country’s, and their own ancestors’, bygone days.
A native of Greene County, Hardy says he originally grew interested in relic hunting when a cousin from the area introduced him to the hobby in 1985.
“I was not a history buff back then at all, but when I saw some of the things he had found it made me start reading into the county history books and some of the family history to see if it was related to my ancestry,” remembers Hardy.
Hardy says he quickly became fascinated with the odds and ends that past generations have left behind. He borrowed a metal detector from his cousin and began “hunting.” Hardy says he quickly discovered that he would need to increase his knowledge of local history if he was going to have any success in his relic search.
“It was amazing what I didn’t know, and it’s even more amazing what I still don’t know,” he concedes.
After moving to Kenansville in 1989, Hardy all but gave up the hobby due to a lack of interest locally. Then he made a unique discovery at Kenan Park. “No one around here was hunting so I kind of got out of it. Then I started coaching baseball in Kenansville and I found a minie ball (Civil War-era bullet) right beside third base. That kind of got me back into the fever.”
After buying a new metal detector, Hardy started searching out other hunting enthusiasts in Duplin County. “It started to grow and now we have a group of about six that get together and we hunt about every weekend that we can in the fall and winter months.”
Since rejoining the hunting community, Hardy has made finds throughout Duplin County. He says the sites that have yielded the greatest bounty of interesting artifacts have been discovered in Kenansville, Magnolia and Faison.
According to Hardy, successful searches require “a lot of research and a lot of luck.” If a site is mentioned in a book, Hardy explains, it’s probably already been thoroughly combed over. “If you can read about it somebody else has already been there; you’re too late.”
Hardy says he searches out old maps that show where roads once cut through fields and forests. Sandy spots near creeks often yield the best results. “A good place to camp is a good place to camp, whether it was the Native Americans, or troops during the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. The key is water.”
Burial grounds can also be used as guide markers.
“When people used to build their houses they would usually have a cemetery within sight of it. If you can find an old cemetery, usually someplace between the cemetery and the old road would have been the house. You can walk out and visually inspect the ground and usually see old plates and other items.”
Judging the age of a find requires a discerning eye, says Hardy.
“There’s certain things you can find on the ground, like black glass, that will let you know it’s from the mid-1600s to mid-1700s. You can tell by the glass and the types of plates and pottery about what you can expect to find in those spots.”
Discussing the tools of his trade, Hardy says he uses two metal detectors, one for areas that contains trash such as soda cans and other modern debris, and one for cleaner sites. In addition to everyday shovels, he also carries pen pointers for up close, detailed excavation.
More modern technology also plays a key role. “It’s amazing what you can do with a cell phone. I’m connected with people all over the United States and even in England, so if I find something I can post it on my account and within several minutes someone from Utah or England or from South Carolina or Georgia can tell me what it is.”
Being a successful relic hunter requires more than just maps and metal detectors, says Hardy. “There is some science to our madness,” he offers. “It takes a lot of teamwork. When we’re hunting, we’ll get a certain distance apart and we’ll go down a field and turn around and come back. One person may get a find or start seeing black glass and then we’ll all tighten up and we’ll search that area pretty hard.”
Over the years, Hardy has amassed enough antique finds to fill a small museum, items ranging from Confederate militia belt buckles to Spanish reales from the mid-1700s. Among the oldest objects in his collection are a series of Colonial-era buttons found at a site near Kenansville and a pair of cufflinks made in honor of the country’s first president.
“When George Washington died, they made buttons and cufflinks with an urn on them in remembrance of his death. I found one and didn’t know what it was, and then I found the other one about 10 feet away, so I managed to get the pair of them.”
Hardy says he is particularly excited about a Georgia Military Institute button he found during a dig in January near Kenansville. After conducting research on Civil War troop activity in the area, Hardy discovered that a unit made up of Georgia soldiers had moved through Duplin County during the war. “I found out that the commanding officer of that unit was the only graduate from the Georgia Military Institute. Whether or not that was his button, you can never prove it, but there’s a pretty good chance it was.”
Though he often comes home from a hunt with “nothing but a bag of rocks,” Hardy feels a successful search more than makes up for the amount of time and work involved.
“It’s just nice to go to a spot where there’s nothing there and then after about two hours you can tell a little story about that spot that nobody knows. Just by what you find you can tell about what time period people lived there, what they left behind; what they used; the things they lost.”
While the hobby has gained in popularity over the last few years, Hardy says popular culture often creates a false impression of the financial rewards that can be gained from relic hunting.
“There’s some TV shows, like ‘Diggers,’ and some of them are giving it a bad name. A lot of people have the misconception that you’re going to go out and get rich doing this. If you do this for the money, you’re not going to make anything.”
Hardy emphasizes that it’s the historical, not monetary, value of his finds that keeps him searching. “We don’t sell the relics; we use them for educational purposes through demonstrations and presentations.”
In keeping with that philosophy, Hardy recently shared pieces from his collection with the public during the Liberty Hall Heritage Day celebration in Kenansville. Hardy showed off cases of some of his most interesting finds and offered information on the items and the growing community of individuals who share his love for historical excavation.
Hardy credits the relic hunting “addiction” he nearly gave up 15 years ago for opening his eyes to the lives of those who struggled, fought, and dreamed here long ago, and the pieces of those lives left behind like reminders of our own impermanence.
“It’s given me the chance to learn history and discover history that no one else knows and the ability to share that with someone else. It means a lot to me and I hope it means something to someone else, too.”