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Celebrating 50 Years of Groundbreaking Relics

By Chris Nelson 

From its inception in 1973, North South Trader’s Civil War Magazine (NSTCW), edited by longtime Publisher Steve Sylvia, has been the voice and face of that eclectic group of amateur American archeologists known as relic hunters, or often called by themselves, “diggers.”

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of both “the Trader” and the country’s pioneer relic hunters’ club, the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association (NVRHA). To commemorate the twin milestones, Sylvia and Nancy Dearing Rossbacher, his indefatigable partner since 1985 as editor, researcher, genealogist and co-designer, have produced a full color, comprehensively illustrated, 584-page history of the hunters and their still astonishing finds: Groundbreakers: The History of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association.

Aided by professional-quality photos by Sylvia and principal photographers Ron Callaghan, Frank Davido and Kevin Ambrose, the book highlights NHVRA member-dug finds from pre-history, the Pilgrims and Colonial period, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

The book is an important learning tool to visually place correct timeframes on rescued artifacts ranging from arrowheads, Pilgrim shoe buckles, Colonial coins (including George Washington political tokens) and, of course, the weapons, ammunition, camp equipment and personal belongings of American soldiers in the 200 years prior to the Civil War.

A particular strength of the book is chapters on specialties written by individual diggers, often focusing upon their own finds and important NHVRA events. A partial listing includes Bill Dancy, who provided a piece about his interest in the Colonial era, Steve Henry offering insight into early spurs, and Ron Stump with information about excavating bottles and jars. Frank Davido wrote a fascinating history of Hessian prisoners and the artifacts they left behind during the Revolution, and Andy Goldfrank provided his invaluable experience excavating privies, a major site of often surprisingly intact, well-preserved items.

Groundbreakers should serve as a key informational and educational resource for professional archaeologists, historians, National and State Park Service personnel, and many others who work to keep alive the nation’s appreciation of both our history and the men and women who lived it.

Let’s hope this will encourage the professionals to make serious use of relic hunters to explore surviving campsites and, especially field hospitals, before they are gone. The mission is increasingly difficult due to the natural erosion of time for all metal and wood relics, and the often-unstoppable appetites of commercial developers.

Groundbreakers traces how, 12 years after the 1961 start of the Centennial, hand-held machines based on World War II mine detectors had progressed to a point that an increasing number of history buffs spent free time to locate, and then search likely sites for surviving belt plates, swords and muskets, lead bullets and the countless debris left by those involved in the Civil War.

By early 1972 there were so many hobbyists in the Northern Virginia area that the still-active Lewis Leigh and the late Bob Daly gathered 42 friends to form the NVRHA. The group sponsored monthly meetings to show recent finds and swap tales of the mud, bugs and brambles braved to rescue the artifacts before they finally became absorbed into the earth by Mother Nature.

Community interest grew so rapidly that, just a year later, the Club sponsored what is likely the first public Civil War relic and artifact buy, sell and swap collector’s show; the grandparent to the 300-400 table shows around the country today.

Then as now, the NSTCW documents the finds and encourages community interest in saving the physical history of the Civil War. As Steve and Nancy explain in the Foreword, “The purpose of this book is … to present an informative visual feast of underground survivors — artifacts that, thanks to the NVRHA, have emerged from the soil to serve as evidence of the past.”

Well done, Pards!

Groundbreakers: The History of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association
Stephen W. Sylvia and Nancy Dearing Rossbacher
584 pages

Chris Nelson is a long-time contributing editor of both the Trader and Military Images, and a former NVRHA Board Member.

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