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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The things they (once) carried

A button fell out of an undergrad’s coat as he walked through the quad in the 1930s. A girl lost her ring in between thick blades of grass when it slipped from her finger one afternoon in 1962. And last week, a couple of quarters fell out of your pocket after you bought lunch at the Whole Earth Festival.

Long after their owners have moved on, these possessions lay hidden in the UC Davis quad. But they can all be recovered – if you know how to find them.

Chris Williams is searching for them. The Davis resident has been metal detecting for three years after inheriting an old metal detector from his brother.

As he runs the portable electronic device over the ground on a shady part of the quad, Williams recollects some of his previous discoveries.

“I’ve found old silver coins from the ’20s to the ’60s here in the grass,” he says, adding that gold rings, silver earrings and spare change have also turned up.

Williams, who works in the printing office at the Davis Enterprise, says he tries to come out to the campus after big events, such as last week’s Whole Earth Festival. Most often, though, he does his searches simply when he has the time. He says he’s mainly interested in older, historical finds. During his three years of metal detecting, Williams has not sold a single item.

Across the quad, Williams’ friend Elihu Knutti is also trying to uncover UC Davis’ buried past. Also a Davis local, Knutti is newer to metal detecting, starting only a few months ago.

Although on his current trip he has only found some change, previous trips to campus have brought him more unique finds.

“The coolest thing I’ve found here on campus was a button from a World War I military uniform,” Knutti says. “But you find a lot of junk in between the nice finds.”

Both Williams and Knutti also search in the town of Davis. Williams cites an 1888 Indian head penny that he uncovered downtown as one of his best finds. Knutti recalls finding an antique Levi Strauss button three blocks from campus.

Metal detectors range in price from $100 to $5,000, says Larry Manger, owner of Big Valley Metal Detectors in Citrus Heights, Calif. He recommends asking a local expert for advice if you want to get started.

“[Metal detecting] is fairly easy if you have some guidance,” he says. “You can get a cheap machine and find something interesting. There are all kinds of different levels of people in the hobby.”

The key to the best finds, Williams says, is to try to get access to where someone lived, such as a historic home’s front yard.

When run over the ground, the metal detector has a computer that will tell you what you are generally looking at with descriptions such as “penny-zinc” or “nickel ring,” Knutti says.

“It detects the shape and the [type of] metal. It’s usually 70 to 80 percent right,” he says. “You can also [program the detector to] not include certain items, such as bottle caps.”

One of the main things about metal detecting, Williams says, is to never destroy the ground you’re working on – after searching for the detected item, he puts any disturbed soil back in place.

As the afternoon wanes, Williams walks through the grass surrounding Hart Hall, and the metal detector beeps.

“I wouldn’t quit your job to do this, but it’s a good hobby,” Williams says as he kneels to investigate what’s buried beneath.


ANNA OPALKA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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