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The Vault

Digging for WWII Relics

I expect this is a subject more familiar to our European readers than folks here in the US – the idea is tromping out to the sites of WWII skirmishes or battles with a shovel and a metal detector, and digging up artifacts like helmets, canteens, firearms, ammo and casings, and other detritus of warfare. I’ve been watching some videos on YouTube of this sort of thing, and I’m curious what you guys think of it. Here’s an example:

The closest analog here in the southwestern US is pot hunting in Anasazi (and Pueblo, and other cultures) ruins, and that is an activity very much frowned upon. The potential high value of old pottery leads people to dig up sites, destroying their usefulness for serious archaeological study as well as disturbing human remains. Because it’s illegal, it is often done without any respect for the site, sometimes with heavy equipment like backhoes. With that as my reference point, I begin with a subconscious aversion to WWII relic digging, I think, but is that really legitimate?

Are the sites being dug up in Europe really places that would be useful for archaeologists? Compared to old indigenous sites here, there is hardly anything we don’t already know about the fighting in WWII and the people involved – so are diggers really hurting anything of value? I can also sympathize with the idea that these artifacts are slowly rusting away to nothing, and unlike pottery and stone tools they simply won’t exist in another hundred years – so why not take the opportunity to salvage them? On the other hand, I’m used to the vision of responsible archaeologists laying out a careful grid on a site, digging slowly and gently, and carefully recording each artifact uncovered – the relic hunters I see are far from that model, prying rifles out of the ground after uncovering one end.

When I was at the Ciney gun show in Belgium last year, I saw more than a few dug-up relics, from small bits of personal gear like belt buckles to complete machine guns. In fact, I bought one myself – I found a seller who had, among other things, an extremely deteriorated (it goes well beyond “rusty”) Gustloff carbine (aka VG1-5). It had obviously been dug up somewhere, and I jumped at the chance to buy it – I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to own a functional original and this makes a very cool substitute. I would love to know the story behind it – it was halfway disassembled when dropped and the mainspring, top cover pin, and front bearing/muzzle guide are all missing. And, of course, the wood is long rotted away. Is it a valuable recovered piece of late-war history, or a grisly grave-robber’s trophy? I don’t know – my thoughts wander back and forth on the question.

Relic Gustloff VG1-5

So, what do you think?

40 comments to Digging for WWII Relics

  • Roy Önnerfjord

    I think this is a very good thing. They remove old mines and grenades and stuff and make the world a better place to be in, and if they do find something like your Gustloff carbine and they want to keep it more power to them!

  • Boris Khaytin

    My uncle once told my cousin and myself about the times he and his friends used to run out in to the woods/swamps of St.Petersburg (Leningrad then) and find old weapons from WWII, many in fully functioning condition. He told us that they actually found a small cache of MP-40 SMGs and fired them out in the woods with no problems. This was back in the 70′s and 80′s, but I’m pretty sure many of those guns may still be there.

  • Ghenghis McCann

    One other thing about digging up WW11 relics is the danger from shells and grenades that have been buried, and lain there slowly deteriorating and becoming more dangerous over the past 70 or so years. ‘Prying rifles out of the ground, after uncovering one end’, could be a very risky, and short lived, occupation.

  • Dave

    Back in the 1960′s I had an uncle who owned a metal detector, and he would go out on weekends and search US Civil War battlefield sites for relics–often coming back with buckets full of minie balls, musket locks, buttons, buckles, etc. Many of those sites were on public lands but not within the confines of protected areas like National or State Parks, etc. Lots of research went into his digs, but he was no archeologist, and removed relics in typical relic hunter fashion. And he was not /is not alone in his pursuit.
    I think you would be very surprised at the amount of “dug” American Civil War and even earlier military relics removed from the ground.

  • Wes Harris

    This is a tough one. I’ve seen many of those YouTube videos as well and a few are quite poignant, with the diggers showing reverence and respect. If human remains are discovered, in my opinion, all bets are off and there should be due care shown to attempt recovery of the remains as well as (ideally) some study as to how they came to be where they were found. On the other hand, more times than not, items were simply discarded in abandoned fighting positions before units surrendered en masse (hence the frequent discovery of dozens of German M42 helmets in a single location). I don’t think there is anything wrong with excavating and (hopefully) preserving items in that circumstance. And, of course, at all times I hope the diggers are being as safe as possible when UXO is encountered.

  • Dan M

    It is quite common in MD, VA, WV, and PA to hunt for American Civil War items. A local man recently found an un-exploded Hotchkiss shell on his farm, about 15 yards from where he had found another almost 30 years prior. As a kid people would come to our farm to metal detect and as a thanks they would usually give us a bullet or button that they dug up. I have 6 or 7 Minie balls from that. Its never seemed unusual or disrespectful to me. Since I have gotten into firearms collecting it seems like just another realm of collecting with a bit of crossover into the gun community. My examples just happen to be in nicer condition.

  • I don’t know how I feel on this subject. I think there is always a difference here between Grave Robbers and people looking to make a little on the side and people who love to treasure hunt! People breaking into tombs are a bit different I think. However what has been overlooked is what are people doing with human remains when they are out finding these artifacts. Yes here in the US, finding human remains of people killed in battle would be near impossible. However over in Europe, this is a big part of the issue. There are “black” and “white” archaeologists. White Archaeologists take the remains and make sure they are buried, returned home…etc. I get the impression black archaeologists are reburying the remains without documentation and taking the means to ID them or selling on the black market. So I could see how this issue could really get touchy in Europe. Plus it seems like everywhere you dig over there, you find something!

    All that said, I collect WWI-WWII Maxims. The 1910 Russian Maxim had several items that are just about impossible to find unless ground dug. I searched for 4 years to find a certain bracket to hold the 1910 optics. Less than a year ago I found one dug up in Norther Russian. I bought it and am in the process of restoring it. I believe it may be the only one in the USA. Without “dug” parts, this restoration project would have been impossible!

    Here is what it will look like when complete:
    http://www.maximmachinegun.com/forumpictures/1910Optics1.bmp
    Some of the dug parts I have bought:
    http://www.maximmachinegun.com/forumpictures/1910Opticsabc.jpg

    I don’t have picture up yet of the bracket I was talking about but if there is any real interest, I will be happy to post. I also am working on a deal to get the muzzle cup pictured in the first link. Again they are very rare in the US but are a common dug part in Russia. Not expensive but it will have some pitting!

    Another really awesome dug part I own is a part from the MG08/15 Lafette. Only one complete example is known to exist and I have the only other part. Its just the cradle, not the tripod base but anyone who knows WWII MG34/42 mounts can see how this worked. Dated 1936.

    http://www.maximmachinegun.com/forumpictures/laf1.jpg

    I really like that dug VG1-5! Thats awesome. Keep me in mind if it ever comes up for sale!

  • Bart

    As an archaeologist, working in Flanders on WW1 dig sites, i think I can add something to the discussion. Two things should be kept into consideration. The first is that twenty or thirty years ago, nobody cared about WW1 relics and WW1-archaeology. Slowly, people and government are learning that these sites are very valuable (historically) and relic hunting is a problem for proper archeological registration. Relic hunting just messes the whole archaeological feature up. The Flemish government tries to makes sure that a lot of these WW1 sites are properly investigated and that all relics are registered. They are starting to treat WW1-sites like real heritage ;-) Why should we treat WW2-sites any different ? Because of the difference in structures (WW1: a lots of static trenches, WW2: a bunch of scattered foxholes) it is even more important to investigate the WW2-sites, in order to learn more about the daily life of the common soldiers. Relic hunting equals the loss of information about the past.
    The second thing is indeed that there’s more than rusty rifles and buckles. There are tons of ammunition buried here (Belgium), digging on WW1 & 2 sites always brings the risk of touching dangerous ammunition !

    What about the law ? Even though there are clubs and groups of (amateur) metal detectors, strolling around with a metal detector (even though it’s on your own land, or if the finds come from the top soil) is by law illegal in Belgium. One needs a licence from the Flemish Government, none of these relic hunters have one. Some of them actually work with us (the boring archaeologists) on our sites (because of their experience and skill), but most of them don’t really mind the context (nor would they recognise an archaeological feature in the soil). But every time I go to a gun show there are guys selling relics. Where do these things come from ? All the information is lost forever !

    • jacquie

      hello bart, would u have any idea what the significance of engraved numbers on the side of a silver cup (actual silver) that was found in Belgium shortly after WWII ? would it be possible to track down the original owner’s family ?

  • Mike

    Since most metal parts are corroding away and everything organic (leather and wood) is long gone, I’ve got not issue with their being recovered . Though I’m pretty sure the methods used by some of these people do as much damage to the artefacts as the last 70 years in the ground did.

    It’s a different matter if human remains are discovered though. I think then authorities should be contacted for a respectful reburial.

    One thought occured to me: boobytraps. Didn’t the Germans use boobytraps in some instances? I’d be worried about the possibility of one being still active, albeit the possibility is remote.

    • Bart

      The preservation of organic materials such as wood, leather, cloth, etc., depends on the amount of water and oxygen in the soil: very wet/very dry: good preservation.

      It is too often that human remains are simply discarded. Here, Commonwealth and US soldiers are always (most of the time) treated with respect and reburied (as opposed to German, Belgian or French). In Flanders: when human remains are recovered on an archaeological dig site, authorities are always contacted for reburial. But that’s probably the exception rather than the rule, unfortunately. Recently there was a reburial of soldiers found during construction works (for a bakery), this winter I attended one for a NZ soldier whose remains our company found on an archaeological dig site.

      • The German war graves foundation has been trying to bring their identification and reinterment processes up to the US/UK/Commonwealth standard for quite a while now. They have a rather large job given that they lost an awful lot of people and that they were in retreat, and in the East in particular their fallen were not treated with respect, either where interred by the Germans or where overrun by the Russians.

        I saw some of this going on in Normandy in 2005; new finds are less likely to be simply buried as unknowns. With WWI soldiers there is the problem of identification, of course, because even if they can narrow down the possibilities, there may be no living relative to provide DNA.

  • Jacob Morgan

    Seconding Dave, it still happens here in the South that Civil War artifacts are sometimes found during routine construction. Souvenir shops sell such items. What is one to do if a minor skirmish was held in one’s front yard? It wouldn’t justify an archeological dig, or becoming a national park. Maybe the best treatment was at the in-laws Church, while digging a new foundation some relics were found so they put them behind glass in the new building, sort of a mini-mueseum–better than being sold by the pound at a curiosity shop.

    WWII items are unusual in that so much surplus was dumped on the domestic market post-war, and a little bit of it is still on dealer shelves. Immediately after the war, there were reports that units destroyed or burried supplies so as not to have it dumped on the market and supress domestic production of consumer goods. I think the artifacts of special interest would be those that weren’t sold at the local surplus store after the war (supplies of resistance units, declassified special ops) and especially the stories of the surviving WWII participants themselves.

  • ColoradoMike

    I read in the newspaper not long ago that the Flemish farmers find so much unexploded ordnance, including artillery shells with poison gas, from WWI, that they stack the shells by the roadside. Soldiers in a demolition unit come by every week or two to collect all the shells, and then destroy them. And that they are also months or years behind in doing that. The army used to go into the fields to actually pick up the shells, but it was too much work, so now the farmers do the heavy lifting. No reports of accidents.

    • Keith

      Back about 20 years ago, a friend and colleague used to get accross to the Somme and Marne valleys at every possible opportunity (nothing at all to do with the arrival of his first child, of course…)

      He had photos of the piles of WW1 artillery shells stacked at the edges of arable fields, where they’d been pulled up by the autumn cultivation.

    • juver

      even to this day farmers are plowing up WW1 unexploded ordnance
      the scary part is that most of it is small stuff (something like 75mm) the really big stuff is still making its way up
      and there are still several tonnes of high explosive buried somewhere in the Belgian countryside (in mines like the ones that were set of at Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt)

    • Bart

      Flemish farmers find UXO every day, and yes, sometimes they find toxic ammo too. They are so much used to it that they pile them up along to road or (worse) place them in holes in concrete pillars for phone cables. DOVO (the Belgian army demining unit) comes along and picks them up, on a daily basis. It’s something people in the Westhoek (“West Corner”, the region around Ypres, Diksmuide, Veurne, …) simply live with. They don’t really mind.

  • Ed

    Ian, there was a tank training site here in Az during WWII. General Patton trained men to operate tanks for the North African war. It was in Mojave county as I recall. Wy friends used to pick up Garand clips and all manner of spent casings. I suspect it is picked clean now. Might be an interesting field trip when the summer temps drop off.

  • DistalRadius

    I’ve done some of this in Germany. I understand the concerns of both sides. The major points have already been touched upon (generally not 100% legal, issues with human remains, dangers of recovered explosives, etc.) so I’ll just add my personal experiences. Firstly, the area I was in (near the German/Belgian border) was so thoroughly fought in, over, and around, that the entire region could be considered an “archeological site”. In many areas I could not go ten feet without finding frag. The fighting was literally everywhere, add in all the non-combat equipment losses, and the ground is simply full of stuff! Since the major battlefields have all been pretty well picked over, we tried finding the after-action reports for small squad-level skirmishes then trying to find those present-day locations. We mostly recovered frag, shell casings, and bits of artillery rotating band. The majority of a Nazi mortar fuze was the best find. Many locals are NOT keen on this sort of thing and we tried to be very discreet about what we were doing. I cannot speak for peoples of other nationalities but it seemed to me that folks did not seem too interested in having that kind of history dug up . I think many Germans would prefer to leave their national past in the past, which is very different from the attitudes of many American “WWII enthusiasts” who seem to treasure any artifact from this period. Again, this is just my opinion, not trying to speak for the German people.

    Oh and on the subject of explosive hazards; even under ideal conditions, explosives of the type used in WWII would have degraded to the point of being either impossible to ignite, or burning at an extremely low (non-explosive) velocity. These shells that have been sitting in the ground for over 60 years pose very little threat, at least compared to the dangers they posed in the 20-30 year period immediately after the war. Not that one shouldn’t exercise caution anyway. In fact, immediately after the fighting concluded, most villages went round and collected all the munitions and explosives they could find and threw em in a big hole on the outskirts of town. These “ordnance pits” are what many diggers are looking for.

    • Bart

      Shells taht have been in the ground for 60 or 90 years can actually pose a threat to people handling them. The fact that there’s much corrosion is actually something that makes them more dangerous, less stable. Especially toxic ammunitions can cause serious injuries, even when burning slowly. Acids in the UXO can cause injuries to your skin (that’s why we never touch any UXO with our bare hands). Without giving mucht of the details, I can recall two serious incidents this year with WW1 UXO in Western Flanders..

    • Denny

      You captured that well: “Germans are NOT interested about their war past”. They closed the war chapter long time ago and do not appreciate when it is repeatedly brought back onto them. Indeed, there is much political connotation and local citizens are not interested in strangers digging over their backyards; bad idea overall.

      Regarding ordnance; you do not know what you can run into – this is not remnants of (kind of cute in comparison) American Civil War. The shells may be still capable of detonation when handled. It depends on level of decomposition with many factors behind. It’s not so much that it would ‘fail to explode’; it was more because users were not able to consume it.

  • DGR

    There is no debate for historical value, nobody is going to discover any WWII relic that is going to change anything. So as far as I’m concerned it’s a matter of a war memorial to the dead. So as long as consideration is made for that, I don’t see a problem. It’s a reminder that we lost tens of millions of people in this war, and we should not be too quick to just let the last reminders of it rust away under the ground. Is it ethical to rob what could be a soldiers deathbed in order to make a buck, well no, but then again we have no problem with working pieces of equipment that was used to kill innocent people, or guns that were battlefield collections, so it’s a mute point. People never debate the ethical dilemma of having a working K-98, STG-44, or MG-42 yet such weapons could very well have been pulled off the body of a dead Nazi/Russian. So really there is almost an argument that its unethical to rob a poor fellows grave, but in reality how many K98s are floating around in the USA that were battlefield collection from the dead? You can’t differentiate the 2, either all battlefield collection weapons/artifacts are unethical, or we accept them all. If the soldier has been dead for a few decades or if you pulled it off his body soon after, it doesn’t matter. So what the discussion needs to be is how we keep the memory of such horrific pain alive. As soon as we forget the pain and cost of world war, we will enter into it again.

    Just my $.02

  • Ian H

    I’m extremely biased on the issue. It has been a decades long dream of mine to stumble on an undiscovered bunker while walking in Holland (chance 0%)containing a crate of STG44/FG42s still in the cosmoline…

    • juver

      and if you do find a crate of STG 44/FG42s still in the cosmoline you would have to give them to the police and they will be destroyed

  • Val

    I will say not a really good relic for use even if you electrolising clean it still too rottened…
    Depands where thing was sitting for example or which part of sand….

    If areas was heavily moisturised than you get a less chance of part being preserved,but if relics was sit in dry areas it more chances for it to be functional things like STG44,Luger or walther p38 related items….
    I was asked many diggers from europe i know to find FG42 related items but no chances still if areas like Kursk or Kurland have those…

    The most common items thats diggers find is Luger,STG44,MP40,Potato mushers,panzerfaust even panzerschreck also surface sometimes,MG42,Mauser 98K items like Walther P38 rare becouse only officers allowed to have them…

    G43′s usualy located at bunkers becouse thats where snipers used to hide…..

    I know At least 8 diggers from europe 5 from Latvia,2 from Russia and 1 from Ukraine,those fellas sold preatty nice items to me compared to others who selling rottened junk for crazy money..

  • Eugene Neigoff

    As an Explosive Ordnance Officer I would take exceptopn to the statement by DistalRadius

    “Oh and on the subject of explosive hazards; even under ideal conditions, explosives of the type used in WWII would have degraded to the point of being either impossible to ignite, or burning at an extremely low (non-explosive) velocity. These shells that have been sitting in the ground for over 60 years pose very little threat, at least compared to the dangers they posed in the 20-30 year period immediately after the war. Not that one shouldn’t exercise caution anyway.”

    I know for a FACT that almost any TNT loaded Projectile will detonate. I had the experiience of destroying World War 1 Projectiles as part of rangw clearance project and we found that the Explosives thay are used in US and British munitions will detonate with improper handling. The EOD school has numerous report of accident from WW 1 ordnance that was dug up almos 75 year after they were fired. One man lost his life in one of the teams when a French 75mm Pack howitzer round was improperly handled and exploded taking out the individual and destroying a M151 Jeep which was parked about 30 feet away.

    Another worry is that some french shells and almost 80% of the Japanese artilary shells were loaded with PICRIC ACID and when thes shell deterate they leak a crystal byproduct which if cracked will detonate. They are extremely un-safe. The standard Render Safe Procedure for Japanese ammunition is to BIP it (BIP is shorthand for BLOW IN PLACE).

    Do not be the man who I met that had a GERMAN TELLER mine and was using it as a door stop. It was fused and the explosives would destroy a tank as it was intended. We defused the mine, and took it out to the range and with his permission and his wifes insistance we detonated it. 8 Kilograms or 17 pounds of explosives made an impression on both individuals, and I suspect the man stillhas not hear the last of the noide his wife was generating when they left the demolition range with us. I wonder if they are still married.

    • mikee

      Eugene, I entirely agree with your assessment. Although I’m not an EOD disposal officer, I specialise in EOD recognition and accomapany EOD personnel occassionally in historical munition identification and provide technical backup using obsolete technical manuals etc., There is no such thing as a safe munition unless it has been professionally deactivated and supplied with an official deactivation certificate. Having been involved in deceased estates, bombing range cleanups, police explosive recoveries and cleanups of filling stations, in some cases involving black powder munitions hundreds of years old, they have all one thing in common. All of them considered potentially live have high ordered!

    • DistalRadius

      I was accompanied by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer. He is the source of my statements. I did not mean to imply that old UXO was “safe”. Thank you for contributing to this discussion. Its always good to hear first hand information.

  • Peter Rasmussen

    A lot of old tools of war, are burryed around the world.
    In a nearby moor, I know for a fact that the brittish burryed 96 Arado 262 jet fighters, they are now creating a polution hassard. They were burryed with full tanks, andfully loaded with ammonition

    • Ian H

      Do you mean ME 262 or AR 234? Either one would be really cool to find. I’ve seen a couple of tanks pulled out of bogs/rivers that look good as new. It would be cool to recover some more planes. Btw, does anyone know if they ever recovered those buried Spitfires from Burma/Nepal (I don’t recall)?

  • Denny

    In fit of digger’s fever you can (and probably will) run into unexploded ordnance – hand grenades, mortar bombs most likely. On top of it, the ‘guns’ are returning after 65 years in soil back into iron ore. Not worth of effort, thank you very much!

  • Cyrus

    Kind of a sticky question… What is the difference, if any, between digging up a rusted up mp40 in 2013 and picking one up in 1945? I have no answer, it’s rhetorical… I think I would do either if I could, but I live nowhere near those battlefields, so it’s academic. I’d never take Indian pottery, but I will and have collected arrowheads. Maybe I’m mixed up…

  • Rich

    iv’e seen the same youtubes, my hair went into a perm seeing them dig up rusty panzerfausts, grenades,and shells, how can it possibly be worth the risk ?

  • P161911

    So at what point does a gun legally become a relic and no longer a firearm? What is the legality of importing something like this? Sure some of these are barely rusty hunks of sort of recognizable steel, but I’m sure some of these could be brought into firing condition with a minimal amount of work. I’m sure there are ranges in between too.

    Also, good thing there aren’t too many people looking to make IEDs in Flanders, sounds like the supplies are there for the taking.

  • I know the chap that owned the spitfire in Pearl Harbour. He once told me that one of the planes he bought from russia was hauled out of a very deep lake no or little oxygan. Apprently the cannons were still loaded and they did fire when tried with the planes original ammo
    This of course is hearsay but prior to 9/11 I had a neighbour from the north of France bring me canadian manufactured .303 ammo from Vimy. The idea was to separate the bullet from its casing empty the cordite pop the primer and sell them back in Canada as souvenirs. 9/11 put an end to that idea but the cordite burned hot and quick and would pop nicly when combined with black powder and fused with a firecracker

  • tom bugg

    Hi All, I live in Colchester, Essex. uk and know of some sites where the U.S dumped lots of equipment after the end of the war.. I know these to be true as my father was a boy at the time and watched these pits get filled with everything that came off the local air bases, from trucks and jeeps to guns, ammunition, tools the lot.. the question I have is… is it possible to try and find this stuff or are there any legal channels that you have to go through? I mean if you were just metal detecting and found it surley thatd be ok?

    • Hi in Alaska there are lots places to look for ww2 equipment I personally go out and search for it . I’ve found few places that full of ammo and soon I’ll find guns as well.

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