Trash, Trinkets, Jewelry and Treasure
A life of detecting.
Story & Photos By John Galleymore
They say you never forget your first coin. My first set me on a hobby that continues to this day. It was 1978 and I was barely ten years old. My father had bought me a metal detector that was really no more than a toy, but it worked. I spent hours practicing in the garden. (It’s strange to think back and realize the majority of toys were played with outside, opposed to today’s indoors-centered iPads and Play Stations!)
So here I was, a young kid playing alone with my detector in the middle of historic Wimbledon Common just outside London. It had been “Common” ground for hundreds of years and the public had been using it for recreation all that time.
As an avid reader, I had poured over library books in the name of “research” on detecting. (The habit of doing good research has remained important in doing detecting to this day.) I had learnt that during Victorian times, it was popular for people to sit under large trees to relax, picnic and enjoy the Common. So I went in search of the largest, (and therefore) oldest English Oak I could find. I had also learnt that the root system will keep lost objects nearer the surface for hundreds of years, so it was around the bases of these giant trees that I searched. Within a few minutes I had my first “target” and a soft beeping in my headphones indicated something metal was there.Shortly after, I dug up my first coin—a Victorian Penny dated 1869. I was awe-struck that I was the first to hold this coin in over 100 years, and wondered if its owner missed it when it slipped from his pocket on some long-ago summer day. To say I was now hooked on detecting was an understatement!
I continued to detect as a hobby for the next few years, often retrieving old coins and trinkets (and a lot of junk) from parks, woodlands and farmer’s fields. I honed my skills and learnt the laws and etiquette of detecting. I never hit the “big time” with a huge find. I was in the right country to search for elusive Roman hoards but the wrong part of the world to search for pirate treasure. However, that would eventually change.
I had given up detecting around age 14 as school and then work took precedent and my detecting days seemed to be over. Some 30 years later, I relocated to the Turks & Caicos Islands. I had been living on Providenciales for some years when I met a lovely gentleman by the name of David Stone, a snowbird who visited the Islands regularly. He is also an avid detectorist* and he reintroduced me to the hobby. (*I am commonly asked, “Are you a metal detector?” I then point to my machine: “No, this is a metal detector, I am a detectorist.”
His plan was simple—recover lost jewelry from the beach and surf and then reunite it with the owners! My hobby was resurrected and soon I was scouring the beaches while often-frantic owners of lost wedding bands and the like would urge me on to find their precious jewelry. Word spread, and the hotels of Grace Bay would call weekly as yet another visitor lost an expensive item while enjoying the beach.
It often surprised me the type of jewelry people would wear to the beach and in the ocean. I was once called by some hotel staff who were trying to console an elderly lady who had lost an “item” in the sand on Grace Bay. Luckily it was in the dry sand rather than the surf which makes finding it a lot easier, but despite many hours of searching they were unable to locate it, so I was called in. Within a few minutes I had found it—a gold “Star of David.” The lady was ecstatic! Through hugs and tears of relief she explained it was a gift from her late mother who had secured it safely as she endured the horrors of World War II. Why this wasn’t at home in a safe was beyond me.
Other items I recovered may have less poignant history but nonetheless are of concern when lost by their owners. Wedding bands seem to be the most-often lost and nearly always by men! Honeymooners commonly lose their rings in the surf, maybe due to a bad fit or just not being used to wearing it yet!
I can easily recover items from the ocean, but only if I have some idea where to search. Rings do not move much once they are a few inches below the seabed, and my success rate is quite high.
I often treat a call-out like a crime scene—after all, information is key if I have any chance of finding the lost item. And just like a detective I will “interrogate” the “witness” to glean as much information as possible: “Did you feel it come off?” “What time? (for tide information)” “How deep?” “Were you swimming or playing?” All this can make the difference between success and disappointment.
I remember two lost items a few days apart. One fellow had lost his gold ring “in waist deep water, in line with the sixth beach umbrella, approximately 25 feet from the high tide line, at exactly 4 PM, when I felt it come off . . .” The other guy informed me he was swimming “somewhere out there” (pointing to the vast ocean) and only realized it was missing when he took a shower that night. I’m sure you can guess which one I recovered quickly and which one I did not even attempt to search for!
The number of lost items of jewelry soon began to grow and with it my success rate. I was tasked with finding rings in the ocean, watches in the canal and even a bag of lost jewelry from Turtle Cove Marina! However, for every item found there was a kilo of trash recovered too, and while frustrating to dig this stuff (all the signals sound pretty much the same) it felt good to be cleaning the beaches and surf of junk!
As I learnt early on, there are many laws regarding detecting and I ensured I was registered and licensed by the Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) in order to recover lost jewelry from the beaches. All private property is strictly out-of-bounds but I was lucky enough to get a call recently from a local resident who had purchased a plot on Provo and was amazed to find old plantation ruins in the bush as they cleared it. The owners were very interested in history, had found countless bottles and pottery items and were keen to see if anything else of historical value could be found. Within a few hours of searching I had recovered a handful of metal items, some unidentifiable but amongst these were a few musket balls and a button. This was real history indeed! The owners were very pleased and they plan to further explore the site and display the artifacts found. I hope to get a call back once more bush is cleared.
Some time ago, I had a call from an old friend who was working as security on “an uninhabited Caribbean island” (its location must remain secret) which was now privately owned. He had come across an interesting find on the beach which appeared to be a coin of some age, and had reported this to the owners. They, too, had heard the stories that abound of pirates and buried treasure, but this coin warranted further investigation. They contacted me and asked if I could detect the general area to see what turns up.
Firstly, though was the all-important research! Having been told what was possibly involved, my friend and I flew to London to the famous Greenwich Maritime Museum, where records and maps are archived from the very first days of sea navigation. We spent days scouring over dusty maps and old ship’s logs, all handled with white gloves under strict scrutiny of the museum staff, for these were no copies, but true historical documents.
After some time, we came across a “log” or ship’s diary, and the island in question was mentioned by name. In barely decipherable, ancient penmanship, it told the story of the crew of a floundering ship that had struck the reef. They loaded into a small boat and rowed for the nearby shore, carrying with them whatever they could salvage. Amongst the hastily gathered lifesaving provisions of food and water were eight “money chests” or iron strongboxes containing gold and silver coins that had been taken as payment overseas and were being transported home when disaster struck that fateful day.Subsequent writings of that crew and diaries of the rescue ship that ultimately picked them up only recorded four chests being retrieved! Had the crew secretly cached the remaining chests, perhaps with plans to return one day? These missing four chests had spurned local stories of buried treasure for years, but none was ever found.
Weeks later, with this information to hand, I set off to the island— first aboard a small plane, then by boat, with my trusty detector in hand. The destination was a small cove, easily identifiable from the archives in London as the landing spot of the crew all those years ago.
We set up camp and I began to detect—but not on land as you would have thought. After studying the records and “reading between the lines,” we were convinced that the crew in their small boat had overturned in the surf and lost some of the salvage provisions—and possibly some of the money chests too.
The cove was shallow and calm and I suspected (and dearly hoped) that countless storms in the past 300 years had not disturbed the seabed too much. Could I really be that fortunate?
It was sometime late afternoon that I hit my first signal. This was a deserted island so I was not expecting any modern trash; I hoped whatever I found was old and historic. I was detecting the surf line when I pulled from the sand, some 10 inches deep, a small rock-like lump—very bizarre indeed. But it was metallic, of that there was no doubt. I waded ashore to show my buddy, who quickly produced a knife and carefully chipped away at its edge. And there, glinting at us in the late afternoon sun—SPANISH SILVER COINS!
We were ecstatic! And looking at the “stacked” shape of the coins these were not randomly dropped but part of many more once stacked in a box. It looked like we had found at least part of the mysterious missing money chest from some 300 years ago!
We continued to search for days to come, and from the surf line I pulled coin after coin after coin. Some gold, mostly silver, and although many “singles” were amongst them, most were still stacked as they would have been in the chest. The coins turned out to be Spanish Reale coins, all dated around 1700 to 1750. I also found two corroded locks, still unopened, and shards of flat iron which we believed were the original chests now disintegrated over time. The valuable coins, despite some encrustation, were good as new!
During the search I also retrieved hundreds of encrusted “balls.” Once cleaned up these turned out to be both musket shot and small caliber cannon balls, which confirmed the fact the crew were well armed and had probably also brought ashore the swivel gun from the wrecked ship.
And so my “pirate treasure” adventure on this remote beach was at an end. I was soon back home doing what I loved and that is returning lost items to their owners. After the next “lost jewelry” call came in and I happily returned a necklace to a grateful lady on Grace Bay, I thought of those coins and was amused by the fact that we have been losing valuable items on the beach for hundreds of years and we show no signs of stopping!
Lost something on the beach? Contact John Galleymore at 649 232 7937.
Leave a Reply
What's Inside The Latest Edition?
On the Cover
Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com