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  • Tim Murphy

Diggin' In Virginia XLVII: Spillman Farm

Last November, I attended Diggin’ In Virginia XLVII at Spillman Farm, my third visit to this site and eighteenth relic hunt overall with the organization. Spillman was home to several Union and Confederate encampments during the Civil War. Although nearly all traces of these camps have been erased from the landscape, plenty of relics remain beneath the earth, reminding us of the men and women who occupied these fields during America’s most tumultuous era.


I’ve had decent luck in my previous trips to Spillman—finding a wide variety of bullets and Eagle buttons—but the big-ticket items continue to be elusive. And unfortunately for me, I was unable to attend the first day of this hunt due to my graduate work, which left me with two days instead of my usual three to recover relics. As you can imagine, I was incredibly eager to make up for lost time on the morning of Day 2, and that’s where I’ll begin my hunt recap…


November 8 (Day 2): I started relic hunting at the break of dawn in some cattle pastures near a small, man-made pond (an area where I’ve found some good relics in the past). Not nearly an hour in, I recovered my first good target of the hunt—a dropped .54 Sharps bullet. About 15 minutes later, I found a General Service Eagle coat button a mere twenty feet from where I dug the Sharps! I could tell I was in a good spot and hoped it was a sign of things to come.

Over the next couple hours, however, all I could scrounge up were some bits of camp lead and nails. Just as I was about to give up and move locations, I got a very high-sounding target, one of those “almost-too-good-to-be-true” signals. I decided to dig and popped out what appeared to be a pull-tab about eight inches down. ‘Typical,’ I thought. But upon closer inspection, I realized this item was golden (as opposed to metallic grey) and the word ‘Rose’ was hand-inscribed on one side. Now, I highly doubt this artifact is period to the Civil War, considering how thin and flimsy the metal is, but I do think it’s gold-plated from the turn-of-the-century. What or who it belonged to I don’t know, but this intriguing personal artifact made my hunt, and I wasn’t even a half-day in yet! I hardly expected my day to get any better, but little did I know…


About thirty minutes after finding my ‘Rose’ relic, I received another high signal on my machine. I dug down nearly a foot expecting it to be a button, but to my surprise I pulled out a brass ring—the first one I’ve ever found relic hunting! I carefully cleaned and inspected the ring’s edges and couldn’t find any inscriptions, but I can say with a high-degree of certainty that it’s from the Civil War Era.


I continued to find quality relics all afternoon, most notably a dropped Gardner bullet, GS Eagle cuff button, and an iron belt buckle. Around 4 p.m., I stumbled upon a long and deep high-tone. The signal’s intensity increased with every inch I dug down until it finally plateaued around the two-foot mark. After nearly 45 minutes of digging, I finally managed to recover the deep signal—a ration can full of nails, a Williams Cleaner bullet, and a GS Eagle coat button. As I removed the artifacts, I noticed colorful striations of ash and rust lining my hole. This meant only one thing: I was in a pit! Unfortunately for me, the day was drawing to a close, so I had to mark my hole and anxiously wait for Day 3 to fully excavate it. Needless to say, I lost a couple hours of sleep that night pondering what relics I may find the following morning.


November 9 (Day 3): I returned to my pit the morning of Day 3 and started excavating its walls, following its man-made layers until I hit natural earth. As I was digging, I noticed a large, white object sticking out of one of the sidewalls. I knew right away that it wasn’t animal bone because of its smooth appearance. I carefully brushed away some of the dirt and to my astonishment, I recovered an intact ivory pipe bowl! Another first for me this hunt! Pipe bowls have been on my bucket list for quite some time since they are incredibly distinctive and fragile artifacts. It’s absolutely surreal to hold such an object. You can almost feel the personal connection it shared with the soldier who used it over 150 years ago. It’s incredible, to say the least. I continued to excavate and found myself another pipe bowl in the opposite wall! This one was made of clay and came out in two pieces, but still complete when put together.


The hole ended up being three feet wide, four feet long, and a little over two feet deep, and it took me the entire morning to dig it out and sift through the tail piles. I managed to find a dropped .58 three-ring Minie ball, a melted three-ringer, several brass belt rivets and button backs, a GS Eagle cuff, a small pewter hook, a brass lantern part, and the top to a whiskey bottle, in addition to the other relics mentioned above.

At noon, I went to the DIV headquarters for the barbecue and relic display. There were so many great artifacts found at this hunt! Here are some of the highlights: Rhode Island state buttons, whiskey and medicinal bottles, sword belt plates, a bulls-eye rosette, an officer’s presentation sword guard, Confederate wreath buckles, U.S. box plates, an ID tag, and the top third of a Medal of Honor award! All of these and more can be found in the slideshow at the end of this post!


After lunch, I went back out to the cattle pastures and did some surface hunting for the rest of the afternoon. I managed to find a brass J-hook, a dropped Enfield bullet (in addition to several other bullet varieties), two GS Eagle cuffs, and some nondescript, miscellaneous camp items.


Despite only being able to relic hunt for two days, I was able to finish with some amazing finds! I ended the hunt with ten bullets—four three-ringers (three of which are Washington Arsenal varieties), a Williams Cleaner, musket ball, two Sharps, one Gardner, and one Enfield—four GS Eagle cuffs, one GS Eagle coat, a J-hook, a brass ring, the golden ‘Rose,’ two pipe bowls, an iron buckle, and several button backs, rivets, and poncho grommets. I’d like to thank the DIV organizers for another fantastic relic hunt! I’m always thankful to be a part of these events and save some history in the process!


Thank you all for reading! The video for DIV XLVII will be released in late March. And be on the lookout for our next DIV relic hunt article coming this April!