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?