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Unearthed War Relics See Battle Again

Jeffrey D'Angelo of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., had the most coveted discovery at a recent relic hunt in Virginia: a Confederate belt plate from Mississippi.
Jeffrey D'Angelo of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., had the most coveted discovery at a recent relic hunt in Virginia: a Confederate belt plate from Mississippi. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

The buzz began in the chow line. "Did you hear?" asked one relic hunter.

"Yeah. A Mississippi plate," said another. "Absolutely perfect."

The proud new owner of the Confederate belt plate embossed with an eagle held out his treasure on his dirt-caked palm.

Looking on, a man with a long beard and flannel shirt whistled low. "That's $12,000 right there."

It was the prize find of a three-day relic hunt called Diggin' in Virginia, one of a new breed of organized digs in the history-rich state. More than 200 relic hunters in camouflage hauled metal detectors up and down the hills of a Culpeper County farm one weekend this spring. They'd paid a couple of hundred bucks each -- and cleaned up.

"You pull a Minie ball out of the ground, and the first thing that strikes you: The last hands that touched this were the hands of a Civil War soldier," dig participant Steve Silvia said of a Civil War-era bullet. "It's about as close as you can get to stepping back in time."

But to alarmed archaeologists, these "safari" digs -- though perfectly legal -- represent the wholesale destruction of the past. Stripping sites of their artifacts also strips the ability to learn what stories they could tell.

"These digs are like reading a book, ripping the pages out as you read and setting them on fire," said Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state's Department of Historic Resources. "It's an outrage."

A Mississippi belt plate alone will tell you nothing, Kilpatrick said. A belt plate whose position is documented in context could help reconstruct the flow of a historic fight, give insight into military strategy or, at a campsite, illuminate the living conditions of the soldiers there.

Members of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists have begun protesting to state legislators and other officials and are enlisting the aid of local historic preservation groups. They've also contacted landowners to get them to stop the digs.

Last year in the state's General Assembly, lawmakers considered a measure that would have required relic hunters to get written permission from landowners before digging, and to catalogue and report what they found. The bill also would have established that relics belonged to the state, not any individual.

It was resoundingly crushed in committee.


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