Two women on Nantucket redefine the meaning of Big Dig.
Nikoline Bohr and Karen Russell are definitely not who you’d picture hunting for buried treasure on Nantucket. Fashionably dressed and as striking as runway models, these two island residents can most often be found knee deep in dirt, waving a metal detector in search of arrowheads, colonial coins and gold rings that slipped from the fingers of Nantucket’s earliest settlers. Together, they’ve amassed an impressive collection of brooches, lockets, knives, belt buckles, medallions and harpoon tips. Their most recent discovery, however, was never on their radar, but might just be most valuable of all: television stardom.
“There’s this notion that metal detecting is an ‘old man hobby’ and therefore an odd thing for a woman to do,” Bohr says. “But that’s silly. Digging in the dirt is something both men and women of all ages can equally enjoy.” Bohr moved to Nantucket year-round nearly three years ago after visiting every summer during her childhood. With a bachelor’s degree in physics, she first began using a metal detector in her backyard in search of meteorites but was amazed by all of the other items she discovered.
“You will be surprised at just the quantity of trash that is so close to the surface,” she says. “You have no idea what you’re constantly walking over and how much it can teach you.” By chance, she also found a friend who was interested in getting her hands dirty. Karen Russell joined Bohr in roaming the many yards and hillsides of Nantucket in search of tiny, sacred artifacts. “You make about six cents an hour until you get lucky,” Russell jokes.
Russell and Bohr always ask permission to hunt on private properties, what they call “good dirt.” Bohr says her background in science, especially in the areas of soil mineralization and its effect on metals, has helped identify promising dig locations. As they unearthed more and more interesting findings, Bohr created an Instagram account—@dig_holes—where she began posting photos of their daily booty. “You’re constantly learning and saving little pieces of history as you go along,” she says. “So I think it’s nice to have people to share it with.” What started as a simple way to document her findings and educate herself on their historical value ended up grabbing the attention of a Hollywood filmmaker.
“I immediately realized I was discovering dynamic characters,” says Chris Berkenkamp, a Hollywood-based director and film producer whose latest film Cut Throat City starring Ethan Hawke and Wesley Snipes was released in theaters this April. After meeting the girls, Berkenkamp pitched them on filming a docu-series about their treasure hunting adventures. “Ultimately, we didn’t want to put this show through the Hollywood machine, but rather empower and champion their story and vision from their quirky, artistic, charming and definitely Nantucket point of view,” he says. So now with a film crew trailing them on their hunts, Bohr and Russell set off in boots, rugged denim, over-sized sunglasses and fanny packs—armed to the teeth with metal detectors and digging tools. They look like a cross between Indiana Jones and punk rockers from the Seattle grunge years of the early ’90s.
Once the metal detector indicates a target of interest beneath the earth’s surface, a small plug will be dug just around the perimeter, sometimes as small as two inches in diameter. The earth will be flipped over, and Bohr and Russell will then inspect it for treasure, using the pin-pointer, which beeps as it gets close to something. When an item is located (most often a pull tab, a nail or a nip bottle cap), the plug—dirt, grass and all—is replaced so it looks as though nothing ever happened. “It takes a lot of patience,” Bohr says. “You need to realize you will be digging a lot of holes until you find something that you can identify, that you think is interesting, but I have to say a lot of things you can’t identify are really cool too, all the bits and bobs and pieces of metal.”
The oldest artifact the duo has unearthed is a Spanish colonial half real, a piece of currency dating back to 1737 that Bohr speculates was dropped by one of Nantucket’s very first settlers. The coin is nearly weightless, an uneven circle darkened by time, with two holes through the middle (likely used as a button at one point). They found the rare coin within two feet of three other distinctly colonial buttons. With their docu-series still in production and their social media following continuing to grow, Nikoline Bohr and Karen Russell will be digging for the foreseeable future. But it’s obviously not for the monetary reward, or the fame for that matter, that keeps these two women on the hunt. They have a deep passion for discovery that becomes more and more intense with each hunt. “Every time I go out, everything I find is the coolest thing I’ve ever found,” Bohr says with a smile. “I think of it as a bag of jelly beans—you never know what flavor you’re going to pull out.”
Styling by Sarah Fraunfelder. Looks by Gypsy.