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Relic hunter Ric Savage finds his Navy Pier souvenir

Ric Savage  host new American Diggers TV show uses metal detector arenear Navy Pier Chicago.  |  Al

Ric Savage, host of the new American Diggers TV show, uses a metal detector in the area near Navy Pier in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: April 22, 2012 8:15AM

Ric Savage is strolling by the Navy Pier Ferris wheel on a historically warm spring day.

The modern-day relic hunter is dressed in black with beige alligator-skin boots. He does not look like a Ferris wheel type. Savage is 6-foot-5 and 410 pounds.

He carries the sophisticated White’s MXT Pro Metal Detector, a four-foot device that looks as if it came off an airport walk-through.

Savage stops at a patch of brown grass not far from the 150-feet tall Ferris wheel. He puts on a pair of headphones. Savage begins moving around the detector. He hears a sound that resembles a dentist’s drill.

“I’ve got a hit right here!” he shouts. Passersby stare at him. Savage swings the detector in a circular motion over a clump of dirt. Tucked inside the dirt is a penny.

In a perfect world it would be a
1916 penny, from the year Navy Pier was built.

Savage holds the dusty penny up against a clear blue sky and says, “It’s from 2010.”

No matter.

It is the thrill of the chase for the host of Spike TV’s “American Digger,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday. The 13-episode series travels to a different city each week searching for high-value relics in Detroit, Brooklyn and Chicago (where a gangster-era segment will be aired later in the season).

“The ground never stops collecting,” Savage says. “I might find something from 1820, 1920 and 2012 all in the same spot.”

The 42-year-old Savage has redefined the art of American digging. It is no longer just some old dude in black socks and sandals wandering Miami Beach with a metal detector.

Savage brings mettle into this field.

He is best known as pro wrestler “Heavy Metal” Ric Savage, who worked the World Championship Wrestling circuit, among others. After retiring in 1997, Savage began his career as a relic hunter.

He zeroed in on the Civil War, a passion he had since the age of 9 when he read The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee. He discovered he had six ancestors who fought in the Civil War. His great-great-great grandfather John Parker fought in the North Carolina unit for the Confederacy and was captured. He is buried at Camp Douglas in Chicago.

Savage’s first major find was a hunk of shrapnel he unearthed at the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor, Va. He later established American Savage, now the top artifact recovery company in the country. It digs as much as a half a million dollars’ worth of historical artifacts out of American soil yearly. The company is based in Mechanicsville, Va., where Savage lives.

“I started this as a hobby, as a way I could get onto properties I wouldn’t get on being your normal guy with a metal detector,” Savage says. “It morphed into this. With the TV show, I’m getting to dig in places I never would have dreamed of before. Like Tombstone, Ariz. I love Wyatt Earp. We found pistols, rifles, handcuffs from the 1880s.”

Relic hunter sounds like a noble way of saying beach scavenger.

“Anywhere anything ever happened, there is going to be something in the ground,” Savage explains. “Relic hunting depends on the hunter and what they are interested in and looking for. I look for historical artifacts. Modern coins, jewelry — that’s more scavenging. I like touching history.”

But critics don’t like Savage touching history. The Society of American Archaeology has criticized relic hunters for promoting illegal looting.

“The archeologists don’t like us because they don’t like anybody else digging,” he admits. “They feel like we loot history. The metal detectorists hate us because we put a spotlight on the hobby, and they’re afraid if they go to a property, [the owner] will want to get paid before they go digging. We’re the stepchild all the way around. But I’m not trying to please archeologists or other metal detectorists, I’m trying to take somebody who may not have any interest in history whatsover and make them find a way to get into it.”

During his wrestling career, Savage did promotional spots with Blackfoot guitarist Rickey Medlocke, now with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Does he know any musical relic hunters?

“Hank Williams Jr.,” he answers. “He is a huge metal detectorist. A friend of mine took Hank out to dig on Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s property in Tennesse.”

There’s a country song underneath all that.

Around his neck, Savage wears a copper medallion that denotes a week’s pay for an employee of an East India company ship that sank in 1809.

He is excited to be carting his metal detector around Navy Pier. “I bet there was old stuff around here,” Savage says. “I was told there were World War I and World War II training camps here. There were a lot of artifacts, but they’ve all been covered over or moved out. If you could lift up the stones, you could probably find personal items from soldiers; buttons, buckles, pocket knives, coins.

Wrestling requires an eye for nuance. Does that come into play in Savage’s new magnetic field? “When I’m digging a battlefield I look at the layout of the land from the way the soldier would have looked at it,” he answers. “The Civil War soldiers looked for higher ground. When you’re detecting and see hills, that’s a good spot to go because you know they would have camped there. During a battle the hills got a lot of artillery shots, so you can find cannonballs that were dodged and shot in the ground. The last thing I like to do is swing a metal detector in a briar patch or brush.” Of course.

No mountain is high enough on the landscape of American digging.

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