If time travel existed, Jesse Thompson and Tony Cwikla would have racked up millions of frequent flier years. They’re history buffs—guys who’d prefer to throw back ale with Benjamin Franklin than with high school buddies, who’d rather watch gladiator matches with Caesar than with Russell Crowe. But since scientists have yet to find a traversable wormhole, Thompson and Cwikla must recover history instead of living it.
When they aren’t working their normal jobs (Thompson as switchboard operator and Cwikla as factory worker), the two men are metal detectorists, or, to put it more romantically, treasure hunters. They scour beaches, fields, and historic sites for coins, jewelry, and other buried relics of the past.
Thompson estimates that there over 3,000 metal detectorists in Connecticut, and at least 100,000 across the nation. Though some detectorists hunt alone, Thompson claims that the most serious belong to treasure hunting clubs: He presides over the Nor’easters Club in Stamford, Cwikla over the Yankee Territory Coin Shooters Club in East Hartford. These organizations provide treasure hunters with a network of hunting partners and an appreciative audience for their finds.
But treasure hunting is not just for would-be Indiana Joneses—Cwikla insists that it’s an easy hobby to pick up. “Really all you need is a detector and something to dig with and you’re good to go,” he says. At the East Windsor treasure-hunting store he operates when he’s not working his normal job, Cwikla sells detectors priced from $75—“no more effective than a child’s toy,” he says—to $1,500. A picture on the store’s website shows him before a row of detectors, his wide grin, glasses, and bushy salt-and-pepper mustache suggesting a cheerful, avuncular spirit. Next to him stands a woman in a tiara and bubblegum-pink skirt suit. “Even Ms. Connecticut was shopping for a detector,” the caption reads.
Not all detectors are created equal, however. As he explains it, metal detectors are like cars: They have different technologies, features, and performance characteristics. Good metal detectors such as Cwikla’s, a White’s DFX model valued at about $1,200, accurately recognize various types of metal and communicate this information back to the hunter through varyingly pitched beeps. Lower-quality detectors aren’t as discriminating and might confuse a balled-up piece of tin foil with platinum. To avoid this irksome situation, Cwikla says, “You have to have a good detector. Really the only things that matter in treasure-hunting are your detector, luck, and research.”
Thompson emphasizes this last variable. “Without research you’re not going to find much of anything,” he says. “You have to figure out where the old residents were and where people gathered.”
Luckily for the Nor’easters and the Yankee Territory Coin Shooters, finding historically saturated places in Connecticut is not especially difficult. “Treasure hunters in other parts of the country droolover Connecticut,” Cwikla boasts. “Think about it: Connecticut is one of the oldest parts of the country, and lots of people have lost things over the years. The chances of finding something old and historical here are much better than, say, in the Midwest.”
And at least for Thompson and Cwikla, happening upon history beats striking gold. “While a few detectorists are out there looking for the valuable stuff, most of us are more interested in history,” Thompson says in a voice that is husky but kind. His club holds their meetings “in the catacombs of Saint Maurice Church,” a testament to its members’ devotion to the underground past.
“For me,” he continues, “metal-detecting is an escape from the day-to-day. Every find has a story and trying to piece together that story transports you to another world. One time, at an Apple Orchard upstate, I found a Spanish real from 1774. Can you imagine? 1774! I remember thinking to myself, ‘The last person to be holding this coin was probably someone who had just immigrated to America and was having a picnic with their family.’”
Cwikla and Thompson have dug up everything from watch fobs and wedding rings to baseball pendants and ornately carved knives. But, like Thompson, Cwikla’s most cherished find is also a coin—Roman, from 79 A.D.
“I was absolutely awestruck when I found it,” he remembers. “I thought it must have been a fake but I took it to an appraiser and he authenticated it. How it got to Connecticut I have no idea. My guess is that some poor kid had a coin collection and dropped it when he brought it in for show and tell.”