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Digging for Battlefield Relics
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Digging for Battlefield Relics

Please read the Battlefield Digging warning page before even considering digging for battlefield relics.

Things to remember

Many of the most interesting items to be found on modern battlefields are made from iron, so if you are using a metal detector remember to turn your discrimination right down, off, or even switching to all metal mode, doing so will mean that you won't miss things like bayonets and you will also be able to detect items that are buried more deeply.

Using a metal detector on a modern battlefield can be a nightmare - expect to dig thousands of shell casings from rifles, submachine guns etc. Don't even try to discriminate them out. If you are a head stamp collector, this might be your heaven, but for the average detectorist it is hell.

Consider investing in a 'Two Box' type detector - again this will help you detect larger metal objects more deeply and will help you avoid digging the thousands of spent shell casings, a two box is ideal if you are looking to pinpoint the concentrations of metal you would expect to find in a filled in trench line or fox hole.

Although most trench lines will have been filled in by farmers long ago, they may still be visible as slight depressions in the ground. Aerial photography can be very useful in spotting them.

Farms in many effected European countries will have a 'rust pile,' a place where the farmers and farm hands dump all the metal work they plough up from their land - farmers are very diligent about clearing as much metal work as they can from their fields after ploughing because of the amount of damage it can do to their farm machinery. Why go to the effort of digging when the farmers may have done the work for you already?

Field walking can produce some interesting finds and means that you won't have to put up with the problem of digging thousands of shell casings. The ideal conditions for field walking battle sites is to find a freshly ploughed field that has had a good amount of rain. The plough brings objects up to the surface and then the rain washes some of the dirt off making them easier to spot. Remember, the trick to successful field walking is not looking for objects amongst the mud, but looking for unnatural shapes, patterns in the chaos, straight lines and uniform curves - master this art and you will increase your finds rate significantly.

Never underestimate the power of local knowledge - if you are looking for sites of interest be sure to speak to the locals, they will almost certainly be able to supply you with information long forgotten or ignored by those who write the history books. They will also know where items of interest have been found in the past. Whether you are visiting eastern or western Europe, make a determined effort to speak the language of the area you are in.

Yes, a great many people in both eastern and western Europe speak English very well indeed[1], but don't underestimate the effect that at least trying to speak the language can have.

The Importance of Recording Find Spots

Being an amateur does not mean that you can't do a professional job.

I'm not saying you should record the find spot of every bullet casing you find, that would be pointless. But you should be meticulous in your record keeping for other finds. You can use a Global Positioning System, now a lot cheaper and a great deal more accurate than they used to be, or a map and compass to triangulate the position of the find spot.

Start a finds log book to record the date and locations of your finds, be sure to include a detailed description of the object (its size, condition, whether or not it is complete etc.), and a positive identification where possible (regiment and date of use for cap badges and insignia. Model number, date of manufacture, country of origin etc. for other objects such as helmets and bayonets).

Also be sure to record as much information about the context of the find as possible. Did you find the object on ploughed land or pasture? How deep down was it? Did you locate a signal with a two box and find many different objects in the same hole? What were the other objects you found? Take photographs at every opportunity whilst digging and refer to the photographs in your finds log book.

Detail. Detail. Detail.

Remember that in the future your log book will need to understood by people with no knowledge of you or your activities. Be clear and concise, any kind of short hand should be avoided, unless you provide a detailed key.

Keeping detailed records is not enough, at some point you need to make sure that your finds log books get passed on to someone who can preserve them and use the information contained within to further our knowledge of battle sites and battlefield relics. Consider leaving your finds log books to the Imperial War Museum (or a similar institution) in your will. Even if they don't want to keep them for their own collection, they may be able to pass them on to another who will be able to make great use of them.

Conservation and Preservation of Battlefield Relics

As finder, you have a duty of care over the objects you recover. Stabilising, or preventing the further deterioration of, iron artefacts can be particularly tricky,

[1] I find speaking to people in many European countries extremely embarrassing, I can just about order a beer in the pub, while the locals can discuss the history of the area and country in great depth in excellent English, those who run our education system have a lot to learn from our neighbours on mainland Europe.

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