Forget Indiana Jones: Meet Real Treasure Hunters

Marc Sciance was out in a construction field under a sun-filled sky for four hours when he found part of his son's college fund in the muddy earth.

The father of two got a few hits on his metal detector that day just outside Fredericksburg, Va., and unearthed some Civil War relics — interesting to a newcomer, maybe, but nothing he hadn't seen before.

Then he got a signal that was "very deep."

"I dug it and it turned out to be the first coin ever minted by the United States," Sciance, 44, said.

The coin Sciance unearthed in October 2006 turned out to be a 1792 silver half-disme, worth 5 cents when it was minted as part of the United States' inaugural launch of national coinage. He later sold it at auction through Stack's Rare Coins in New York City for $11,500 — enough to pay for a full year's tuition at Christopher Newport University, where his son is a sophomore.

Sciance is one of thousands of treasure seekers in this country. They are men and women, grandparents and children who, with metal detectors and digging tools firmly in hand, comb the country's parks, fields, schoolyards and beaches looking for anything from coins and jewelry to relics and gold.

There are organized groups in 49 states devoted to the hobby. And while some haul away valuable items, others find just enough change to jangle in their pockets as they walk back to the car.

Duane Biller is the president of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs Inc. A metal detectorist for about 20 years, the 57-year-old from McClellandtown, Pa., said there really isn't a typical treasure seeker.

There are nearly as many women as men in the clubs' memberships, he said, and they also see a lot of elderly hunters and families.

"A lot of people get into it because of the extra money," he said. "It's hard to believe there's so much money in the ground."

Dreaming of Diamonds

Russell Gish, a 72-year-old retired Navy man, is a "coinshooter," one of those guys with jangling pockets.

At least twice a week, Gish drives from his home in El Cajon, Calif., a suburb east of San Diego, to the public beaches on the Pacific Coast. Armed with his Minelab detector, the same brand Sciance uses, Gish waves his coil back and forth across the sand until he gets a hit.

"It's a hobby. It's a form of exercise," he said. "Normally it's not a profit-making venture unless you find something unusual."

Gish, a metal detectorist for about 35 years, is also the president of the Coinshooters of San Diego, a club that boasts about 90 hunters.

Everyone, he said, has that dream of pulling up a diamond or hoard of cash.

Sometimes the money doesn't even come from the sand. Gish remembered that he once received a reward of a couple hundred dollars after returning a lost diamond ring.

Summer is the most lucrative time at the beaches, Gish said, noting that between sweat, sunscreen and the cold water, jewelry often slips off right at the water's edge.

But mostly he finds coins currently in circulation, about $4 to $7 per week.

"A lot of people think they'll get rich on these things and they don't," he said.

Instead, Gish throws his beach-earned money into a jar.

"When the jar gets full I go and cash it in and buy myself a nice steak dinner or something," he said.

Gold by the 'Mother Load'

Mark Belda can boast a much better return. He has traveled to places such as Australia, the Caribbean and Mexico, the trips often funded by what he's dug out of the earth.

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