You're out metal detecting in a field, swinging your coil along when you get the most incredible sounding target. You sweep your coil back and forth over the target a few times. It's a tight, high tone, solid signal. A perfect sounding signal! The kind you dream about hearing. It sounds just like that large copper coin you dug last week. Your blood starts pumping and your heart begins racing as you anticipate what this beautiful sounding target is going to be. You're thinking to yourself this just has to be something good. Maybe you even say it out loud to your friend whom you're out detecting with. You might even call them on over to listen to the target. It's that good of a sounding signal that you can't help but want to share the excitement with your detecting partner. You dig the hole, locate the target, and pull it free. You examine the item as you hold it in your hand. Puzzled, you re-scan the hole and that's when you realize that your beautifully sounding copper coin isn't actually a coin at all.
If it's your first well then you probably can't help but wonder what exactly is this strange looking knob shaped thing. You take a closer look at the item. The object appears to be brass and is about an inch or so in length. It kind of, sort of, looks a little bit like a lug nut. You notice that the lower part of this particular one is cylindrical, sometimes they're hex shaped. About midway up, the item flares outward slightly. It has a domed shaped top and a hollow opening in it's center. They vary slightly in size and style but their purpose is always the same. Sometimes they have a small circular hole in the center of their domed top and other times they have round enclosed tops. They might even have a shallow tapered top or an ornate top with colored marbles or ceramic inlaid. Sometimes their insides are threaded or tapered and other times they are smooth. And sometimes they have one or two small holes on each side. The small holes are designed for a nail or screw to pass through which helps to then secure the knob in place. There's dozens of different styles.
If you've dug one or more than one well then I'm sure you know exactly what it is that I'm referring to. If you don't have the slightest clue though, well then let me introduce you to the ox knob. Oh boy do they ring up beautifully. They definitely will fool you every time into thinking your target is going to be a copper or large cent.
Ox knobs are affixed to the ends of the horns of animals, generally cattle. They serve two functions. The first being safety. An animal's horns can pose a danger to people or even other cattle or animals. Ox knobs help to prevent the risk of injury that might occur from the sharp horns. Their second function is that they serve a decorative or ornamental purpose. When properly fitted, ox knobs really add to the attractiveness of the animal. Mounting the knobs is a relatively simple process and completely painless to the cattle. It also doesn't effect the horns growth at all. Filing or sanding is generally needed to get a proper fit and once correctly placed, screws, nails, or adhesives are used to keep the ox knob in place.
Pictured above are some of different styled ox knobs that Todd Yerks has found when out metal detecting. The older ones generally are cylindrical, have domed shaped flat tops and are smooth on the inside with often no internal threading. The newer, 19th century style are often hex shaped, have a wrench flat style top, and their insides are generally threaded with tapered or stepped threads.
During the 18th and 19th century oxen were the preferred draft animal on most farms in America. Oxen were less expensive to purchase and care for than horses. In the summer months they lived off of grass and during the winter months they ate hay and turnips or straw. These powerful beasts were stronger and had greater endurance than draft horses too. Oxen are also less excitable than horses and not easily spooked. They're docile animals. If spooked they will run but they're not going to run very far. If an oxen gets trapped or stuck somewhere he will wait patiently for help instead of thrashing about. They costed less, worked twice as hard, and when they died you could cook them up and eat them. They're cattle after all and probably taste a heck of a lot better than a horse does.
Oxen are cattle that have been trained as draft animals, generally they are castrated male cattle. I read that the training process typically begins within a few days after birth. Oxen have an average lifespan of about 15 years and a working life of approximately 10 years. They are paired with another oxen that is similar in age. Once paired off they become and remain companions for life.
Oxen were essential during the colonial period. Oxen carried heavy loads and hauled wagons that were stacked high. Not only did they pull carts and wagons, they also were used for other heavy labor. Teams of oxen plowed fields, threshed grain, powered machines that grind grain or supply irrigation, and cleared land. They performed strenuous farm work and were powerful muscle when it came to building canals and the railroad. Oxen were useful for many jobs. Oxen teams transported supplies for the continental army during the revolutionary war. Washington's army depended on oxen for their supplies. During the middle of the 19th century, oxen were frequently the pioneers top choice for traveling west by covered wagon. Although they are slower than horses or mules, they pull with a steady strength. They were a more reliable choice as well and when times got tough oxen could survive off of dodgy straw or moldy hay.
Phillip Mandolare found the ox knob with the horn still attached in it that is pictured above. He was metal detecting nearby a cellar hole in Hollis, New Hampshire when he found it. It was about 100 feet from the foundation in nice sandy soil. I thinks its truly kind of incredible. Such a fascinating find, really. Honestly, if you're going to end up finding an ox knob, who wouldn't want one with the ox's horn still attached?
I can't imagine that there are too many people out there who can say they have found an ox knob with part of the horn still attached. However I managed to discover two people who can stake that claim. Dave Wise also found one with part of the ox's horn still inside it. The ox knob of the one Dave found is perfectly split open right down the middle. Dave believes that it probably cracked and split apart due to thermal expansion. Water most likely got inside it and during the cold winter months expanded to ice. You can see it in the photos below. It's kind of perfect if you ask me. I think the knob being split open like that really highlights the ox's horn.
Generally speaking, once you know what exactly an ox knob is, it's an item you probably won't confuse with too many other objects. Once you know well then you seem to just sort of know. Of course with every rule of thumb there's often an exception somewhere. There is another item that people find metal detecting and seem to sometimes confuse with ox knobs. A hames top. A hame is a part of the harness that fits around the neck of a draft animal. It's a collar of sorts. Sometimes, for decoration, long hame balls were affixed to the ends of the hame. Below is a picture that display various different styled hame tops in the top row and a few different ox knobs in the bottom row. You'll notice that although the two item look rather similar in nature that there are several differences. Hame tops for one thing are frequently larger in size than ox balls. There shape is distinctly different too, with more of a ball shaped top.
I found some cool old advertisements of hames and hames tops that are pictured below. They were in an old Sears Roebuck catalogue and a Montgomery Wards catalogue from the late 1800's. It looks as though stores sold the hame tops separately as well.
Inspired by the old advertisements I found for hames, I searched for old advertisements of ox knobs. In all the old catalogue's I could find, I spotted what we refer to as a ox knob identified and labeled as ox balls. I found the old advertisements for ox balls, pictured below, in a 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, a 1895 Montgomery Wards catalogue, an Annual Catalogue of Seeds and Agriculture from the late 1800's, and in a 1905 P & F hardware manufacturers catalogue.
There was even a cool advertisement for an ox ball wrench.
As farming methods evolved, they left the use of oxen behind. Oxen have sort of become a forgotten animal by many Americans today. Ox knobs have an interesting history that is worthy of further study. Although they aren't the coin you may have expected them to be. If you’re digging ox knobs you at least know that you’re detecting in the right area. I would really love to see pictures of the ox knobs you have found while out metal detecting. You can post a photo or leave a comment in the section below. I hope you have a fabulous week. Happy Hunting!