Using Metal Detectors to Discover Privy Pit Treasures While Antique Bottle Digging

By Michael Bernzweig

Thirty years ago, antique bottle collecting was an enigmatic pursuit limited to the dedicated few. Today, it is a fast growing hobby that is appreciated by many. It’s interesting to ponder… what lure do bottles have for the collector? They are seemingly meaningless old objects. Quite the contrary, antique bottles have an individuality that places them in the realm of folk art. When bottles were made by hand, no two were identical. Machines started to manufacture bottles just before 1920; therefore, many collectors are not as interested in machine-made bottles. The antique bottles most highly prized by collectors were made prior to 1912. Since the variety of antique bottles is astonishing, most connoisseurs collect entire categories of bottles.

Types & Categories of Antique Bottles

There are distinctions in bottles which make them extremely valuable. This includes their colors, embossed designs, and the shape/markings on the base or the neck of the bottle. These features help determine their origin and time frame. Some hobbyists collect only ink bottles; many seek only bottles of a certain color. Popular antique bottles include those that contained medicine, poison, whiskey, bitters and perfume.

Whiskey flasks are among the most popular categories of bottles to collectors. In the 18th and 19th Century, the glass whiskey flask was an integral part of men’s attire. The ornateness of his flask was an indicator of his wealth. They can be found in colors such as green, olive-amber or even a rare sunburst design. Poison bottles are another popular category. Poison bottles were often embossed with a warning to prevent their accidental intake. However, many people couldn’t read. So, in the 19th Century, glass manufacturers created the poison flask with a cross-hatched rough surface alerting to the dangers within. Cobalt blue poison containers are a favorite of beginning collectors because they are somewhat easy to find. Be sure to read our article entitled “best metal detectors for finding antique bottles” for tips on getting started bottle collecting with a metal detector.

Why are Bottles Found in Privy Pits?

Attics and basements can be lucrative spots for the bottle collector. But the real treasure troves are old privy pits, or outhouses. This is where garbage was disposed of. One source gives an example of a housewife sneaking off to the privy pit to indulge in a stiff shot of whiskey—then, disposing of the evidence. Another scenario: coins falling out of men’s and boy’s trouser pockets. Because there was no formal dump or garbage pick-up, people dug pits for their trash. Dumps were located in their own backyard—most often in a privy pit. Bottle diggers are also on the look-out for communal or “town dumps.” These were usually located in the main part of town accessible to local residents. A new bottle digger may wonder if it’s safe to dig into old outhouse pits. Experienced diggers assure us that it is—body wastes decompose rapidly and are not harmful after only a few years. Dedicated bottle hunters talk about finding small fortunes in the pits, including bottles, coins, guns and other relics.

Best Metal Detectors for Bottle Digging

A metal detector will signal rusted metal, copper and brass in spots that may be former privy pits. Finding old tin cans, nails and farm equipment can indicate that there are lower levels of refuse below. When choosing a metal detector for bottle digging, consider if this will be your main past-time or if you will be using your detector in other settings. Some bottle diggers say a multi-purpose or entry-level model is fine—as long as it detects at a lower frequency. Iron, brass and steel are picked up more easily with a lower frequency. Veteran bottle diggers usually recommend a deep-penetrating metal detector with a large search coil for locating a dump site. Large search coils detect larger objects at greater depths. Another savvy investment for the bottle digger would be a high-end multipurpose deep-seeking metal detector, such as the Makro deephunter Metal Detector. This unit actually locates underground caves, cavities and repositories with advanced 3D graphic images. Metals can also be identified within these underground structures.

Here are some of the best metal detectors for locating privy pits:

Entry-Level Deep-Seeking Detectors

Mid-Level Deep-Seeking Detectors

High-End Deep-Seeking Detectors

Top Deep Seeking Metal Detectors:

How to Locate and Recover Bottles from a Privy Pit

How can you locate a trash pit? There are several landmarks you can look for if the outhouse isn’t still standing. When at an old farm or homestead, look for a wood shed, as many privies were located nearby. Pathways, especially those lined with rocks, may very well lead to a pit. Depressions are a good indicator that something lays in the ground below. Many detectorists use very long probes (6-9') to check for soft soil or voids in the ground. They feel for a wall from a brick liner or cistern or the crunch layer of a trash pit. Usually, when you find a privy—you will feel a scratchy crunch that wasn't anywhere else around. Your metal detector can then lead the way by signaling high levels of metal.

There are other tools you will find invaluable while out in the field. A pinpointing probe is essential for the privy pit digger. This is a used to probe and pinpoint the exact location of metal targets. It’s a huge time-saving device! Headphones, a sturdy-handled digging tool (such as the Lesche T-Handle Ground Shark Shovel) and good gloves are also must-haves.

Copyright 2014 Detector Electronics Corp.

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