After you’ve got permission, found your relics, and got them home, your next task is to identify them.
Firstly you need to clean your relics. Many people ask me to help identify items that already tell you what they are! For instance, all British fuzes for artillery shells, bombs and mortars always carry the fuze number. The mistake people make is that they don’t clean the relic before asking for advice on what it is. A quick clean and you wouldn’t need to ask! There are numerous methods you can use to get World War Two relics clean, but all you need to do for now is washing them in warm water with a very soft bristle brush. Just remove the surface muck and grime so that any markings or stamps are revealed. Deeper cleaning takes years of practice and a variety of different techniques, for now we’ll stick to identifying relics with just the surface muck cleaned off.
The majority of relics you find will be marked in some way. The commonest mark to see is the War Department (WD) arrow, closely followed by the Air Ministry (AM) stamp. With American items ‘US’ is to be found on many items, and with German relics, the Waffenamt mark is very common. However they are stamped, these markings greatly help with identification.
Aircraft parts are always covered in stamps and markings, denoting the aircraft type, part number, manufacturer and even quality control stamps. This can make the identification quite straightforward, but it can also cause quite a bit of confusion. Not every aircraft part is stamped and sometimes they are missing vital bits of information. Even worse, some manufacturers used their own coding system, completely throwing the identification of the relic off! There are plenty of websites dedicated to aircraft part markings, and having a basic knowledge of how to decipher these marks is essential to the relic collector. With this knowledge you can move identification from ‘aircraft part’ to, for example, ‘piece of P51D Mustang’.
When I started collecting, I made cartridge case headstamps my first area to research and learn. The headstamp can tell you almost everything about a cartridge case, but you will also need to measure case length and diameter of the neck to be 100% positive ID. There are many websites dedicated to headstamps of small arms ammunition, as well as larger calibre shells and artillery cases. There are also websites that give precise measurements of cartridge cases, which will further help identification, as well as sites that go through the terminology associated with cartridge cases.
Along with manufacturer marks and identifying ‘number’, a lot of relics are marked with the year of manufacture. With these marks, identification of the majority of relics can be accomplished with a quick search on the internet, (that is, until you know them all off by heart!). Don’t be afraid to ask other people to help identify an item, there an awful lot of experienced collectors out there that are more than happy to help. There are even facebook pages dedicated to military relics and with a decent picture of the relic, along with any markings you can see and measurements someone will identify it in no time.
Another important consideration when trying to identify a relic is where it was found. Archaeologists the world over will tell you how important context is. When trying to identify a relic, you have to know where it was found so you can put some context to it. For instance, a relic found on an old gunnery range is likely to be a piece of ordnance, whereas one found on an RAF base is less likely to be ‘army’ related and more likely aircraft related. Even simple things like this can aid identification. It’s also good to know if it was on the surface or beneath the ground, and if so, how deep? The depth of an object can sometimes help identification.
Always remember that safety is paramount, for you and those around you. With enough research and preparation you will have a good idea of what you might be digging up but if for whatever reason you make it home with something dangerous or explosive, leave it alone and call the local authorities.