Old cellar holes are interesting places to metal detect. Cellar holes exist where houses used to be, which means there’s a lifetime or more of stuff that’s been moved, dropped, lost, even hidden away. When a house collapses, burns down, or is eventually torn down or relocated, there’s a good chance some stuff will settle in the cellar.
A cellar hole is an actual hole where a house foundation once stood. Typically, these represent a period in time maybe 100 – 200 years ago, where over time the foundation has become less prominent. All that remains is a depression or large “hole.” What is a cellar hole used for? Typically (before refrigeration) they were a storage area or root cellar to keep food like fruits and vegetables fresh for long periods of time.
One confirming sign that you’ve come upon a cellar hole is a perimeter rich with iron hits. Why? Imagine a house with boards nailed to a frame that eventually falls into disrepair. Over time the wood rots and the nails fall to the ground. There are other confirming signs and a lot more to finding and hunting cellar holes.
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Clues about Cellar Holes
Depending on where you live, clues about the existence of cellar holes may differ. For example, some are purely earthen while others made use of local materials, like rocks, to form partial walls. However, all cellar holes needed at least modest depth to keep things cool (vegetables for example.) The existence of a depression in the ground is usually the best clue.
Besides the minimal depression in the land (sometimes overgrown by brush), you could see either earthen berms, substantial rocks, or both. These would mark the outline of the cellar, at least on three sides. The front may not have been fully walled-in, but open with a removable cover depending on size.
In the 1700s, root cellars were typically used to store crops for the winter. Some were mere earthen hollows while some were larger with rocks and perhaps concrete. To get an idea of how root cellars were constructed, take a look at some good examples here. Once root cellars became obsolete with the introduction of refrigeration, they would fall into disrepair. The remains are what you’re looking for now.
In some areas of the country like the Northeast, abandoned towns may contain clues that are simply holes in the ground. These used to be cellar holes, either standing alone or, more likely, with houses on top of them.
One person’s trash (or historically lost items) are another one’s treasure. You may not find coins but can often find pottery or bottles. Even old locks, hasps, nails, and horseshoes can be great finds.
How to Find Old Cellar Holes or Old Home Sites
Techniques for Searching Cellar Holes – Old Cellar Metal Detecting
With a potential cellar hole located, it’s time to hunt. Since these probably had homes on top of them a long time ago, there’s likely to be a lot of old iron surrounding them. As you pick your way through nails, hinges, and other old items, don’t get discouraged. If you do want to hunt near the hole around the perimeter, you might try a smaller coil. This could give you an edge in avoiding some iron that’s being discriminated out because of your larger coil, bettering your chance of hitting some non-ferrous goodies.
Eventually, you’ll decide whether it’s worth searching close to the outer walls. As for the wall area itself, if you see stones that were once a foundation, try searching with your coil or pinpointer in the spaces and cracks in-between. You never know, a stone could be hiding a cache of coins!
Bonus finds near cellar holes or old home sites
- Take a look around the cellar hole area you’ve chosen to hunt. Bonus finds may exist where there were fruit orchards nearby. Look for any hint of remaining fruit trees. Heaped ground with banked sides may indicate dumping areas that were out of sight of the homestead. That trash may be a treasure today.
- Check near the cellar for old water sources. Typically streams, but you may find the remnants of old wells or springs. You may have to reference historical maps to find clues, but water sources had lots of foot traffic over the years. Some old houses actually had a well or two inside the house! Either way, be careful and don’t fall in.
- Speaking of foot traffic, remember that the cellar hole had a house over it full of people people who had to use the bathroom. Consider where the footpaths were to the outhouse! You may see yet another depression in the ground or even small foundation stones where that stood.
- Look at the foundations of old houses or try to determine from cellar hole orientation where they may have been. Next try to picture where the front porch and/or steps may have been. People spent time there relaxing and sitting, so there’s a chance some items fell out of their pockets.
- You may as well look for barn foundations or carriage house remains, too. These may or may not show you much, but if you search all-metal mode and find a clump of old nails, you may be on target. Increase your discrimination to weed those out and see if there are any goodies around.
- Just in case, bring a sifter with you. When you start finding broken pottery or glass when digging for targets, you’ll want to check deeper to see what could be left largely intact. A sifter can help you remove the dirt and reveal objects quicker.
How Deep are Cellar Holes?
Just imagine what size you’d make one if you were storing up for your family and farm animals ahead of winter. Since I’ve never made one, I looked it up to see what the typical depth was. There are reports online of anywhere between 3 feet and 8 feet deep.
What’s it like to find and dig a cellar hole?
Take a peek at the cellar hole experience:
Where Are the Cellar Holes and Old Home Sites?
They exist, trust me. The hard part is finding them. Here are some ideas to help you out:
- Talk to a buddy in the hobby, a local metal detecting club, Facebook or Mewe Group
- Check old historical maps
- Get permission to hunt
- Scout the area you’ve chosen
Online Help: One interesting site I use to scout for possible foundations and cellar holes is historicmapworks.com – I can look up an old Atlas, then superimpose that on the current street map. This way I can see where historical reference points were against the current landscape. These features may still actually exist in semi-populated areas, or they could be in the woods off the beaten path. It all depends on what happened there over time. They may or may not have been built over, or they may be totally destroyed.
Remember that maps are way more accurate today than hundreds of years ago. It may take some time to locate the correct place. For example, I find it interesting to see the course of old rivers and how they’ve changed over time. I wonder if some of it is due to old map inaccuracies.
Here’s an example of a New England town using a percentage overlay from an 1800’s atlas against today’s map. This was done using their basic (free) earth viewer. This is set at 75% map opacity, but the tool allows you to adjust from 0-100.
Needle in a Haystack: If you’re lucky, some towns may actually have map showing where old cellar holes are, like this one!
Old Cellar Hole Tips
- Follow stone walls into the woods. These were property lines or sometimes path borders leading to homes.
- The size of a cellar hole could represent the potential value of the stuff you’ll find. Most other things being equal, larger homes belonged to wealthier people.
- A lot of early homes didn’t have stone cellars or foundations, they’d be built with logs. Over time, they rotted away and just left these depressions in the ground.
- You may find the cellar holes in the midst of different-sized trees.
- Especially in the earlier days (prior and into the 1800s), stones for house foundations were valuable. If a house burned down, the owners might move the stones to a new location and re-build. This left the old root cellar by itself which over time took on more of the classic “depression” look.
- In the center of the cellar hole, you may get a lot of iron signals where the house burned or rotted into a pile. There could be coins underneath. Dig a small pit maybe 6-12 inches deep, search the spoils and especially the newly exposed dirt surface to see what’s there.
Enlisting modern technology
When metal detecting old homesites and cellar holes, one interesting technology that some detectorists are turning to, besides historical maps, is LIDAR mapping. These are also known as Hillshade maps. When used in conjunction with a standard map, these can provide you with a guess at potential cellar locations. I say potential because you have to look closely and think about what you’re seeing.
Here are some steps to try it out. I believe the Chrome browser works best, but try whatever your favorite one is.
Go to https://apps.nationalmap.gov/viewer/ and then search for the location of interest in the upper right hand search box
Click the layers icon
Choose “3DEP Elevation – Hillshade Stretched” from the menu on the right
You’ll then see this:
Once this Hillshade layer appears, turn it off, adjust the base map as needed until you see the area you want to hunt, then turn on the Hillshade layer.
Now here’s where the investigative part comes in. Look for interesting depressions where you wouldn’t think there should be any. Remember, you’re looking for a small house-sized object. It can be tedious, but rewarding, and there are detectorists who’ve had luck with this.
Tromping around in forested areas or even more open ones in search of cellar holes or old home sites can lead to injury. Not only walking about (cut feet, twisted ankles, branch slaps…) but when you’re digging for targets. I recently saw a video where a detectorist found a cellar hole, got a target alert, dug a hole, and reached down into it only to run his hand across a buried saw blade.
I know near my town, I was walking through a field and tripped on some rusty buried barbed wire. It could have been worse.
I read of someone who found a buried-by-brush 30-foot deep well out there while hunting a cellar hole.
If you’re up in the mountains among the overgrowth, watch out for snakes hiding among rocks, stone fireplaces, tall grass. etc. Bee hoves could be among the trees or fallen logs.
So pack a first aid kit, let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll return. It could save you some serious healing time or worse.
Here’s a good historic look at old cellars and what we now know as cellar holes.
What kind of detectorist are you? (click to choose)
Here are some of my favorite metal detecting items:
Thanks for joining me and reading the content I create for you. Here are some of my favorite metal detecting items, all from the basic categories you’ll need. These are affiliate links, so if you do decide to use any of them, I’ll earn a commission. In all honesty, these are the basic tools I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in the hobby.
Pinpointer – Pinpointers will help you home in quickly on target materials that your big detector alerts on. It’s a no-brainer accessory for metal detecting and can be used not only on dry land but most are either partially or fully submersible.
Can’t-miss metal detector – I like this model especially because it’s good on land and at the beach, is feature-packed, from a well-known and respected brand.