Identifying Your Unknown Finds – Part II

Identifying Your Unknown Finds – Part II

Note:  If you have not read Part I, you can catch it here.

In Part 1 we  prepared the item for identification by carefully cleaning it and photographing it at all major angles with closeups of any markings.   We have noted all the clues available to us, and made some guesses as to what our mystery item is.    We have also put together some rough search terms to get started trying to find a like item on the internet.

Seeking Assistance
If you are getting assistance on your identification from the expert or on one of the forums, here is where you post your photos, all of your clues, and your guesses to the forum or provide them to the expert/s.  They are going to be very appreciative that you took the time to give them every detail.  You have given the item a partial identification just by revealing its clues.    Now you can continue working on identifying the item yourself.  You just now have the synergy of multiple people working on the identification.  If a single person doesn’t crack the identity quickly, you may see a collaborative approach where individuals working on the item find different partial identities and additional clues leading to the best identity the group can manage to get to.

Assisting with Identification
If you find yourself browsing the “Help Me ID My Find” forum and find an item you would like to assist with, or are otherwise engaged in helping to identify a find, make sure that the owner of the item provides you with all of the things discussed in part 1 that can provide clues.   At a minimum, photos of the item’s front and back, any interesting details or angles, and closeups of markings.   Dimensions, weight, and probably material.  What state and country was it found in?  Where?  How deep?  What other types of items were found around it?

Again, here is our item from Part I:

identifyitem1ing finds

Envision the Item 
Before you get started on the internet, study the object and/or all the photos until you can picture the item in your mind.   Picture what the object might look like if it had been taken care of and found at a flea market, not dug. Sometimes attempting to picture a non-dug version of what you are looking at versus the rusty or tarnished, worn item is helpful. It is amazing how rough a hundred or more years in the ground can leave an item looking. If the object found is broken or a part of an assembly, try to sketch or imagine what the whole thing looked like.  If the item is rusty, try to imagine in without the rust.  If the item is brass or bronze, imagine it looking gold and shiny and not dull and green or orange.

It is important to be able to picture the item in your mind so that when you are scanning items on the internet, your mind will alert you when you see something like it.

Two of the best tools that we can use to identify unknown objects on the internet are:
Google Image Search:

I like to use Google image search if I have no idea what the object is.   Once I can classify it, I move to eBay to try and nail down the date range and specific type.  Many regular sellers on eBay that are experts on certain items tend to provide a lot of details in descriptions.

Google Image Search:
Google’s image search is excellent for getting a lot of various non-specific photos for search terms. In general, if I have no idea what an object is, I start with Google image search. I am just trying to find something that looks like the item. At this point I do not care what it is exactly, I am just trying to get on the trail.

Just start typing in search terms and scroll through the items displayed.   If you aren’t getting anywhere, just try a different set of search terms and start looking at pictures again.  Make sure you have “SafeSearch” on, or you may get distracted!

Vary your search terms. IMO, this is the key to unlocking the identification of a hard to identify object. For example, I might start with “brass button eagle” and view a lot of items, then try “1700’s eagle button”, then “18th century military button”. I may have to try dozens of search term combinations to get enough clues to move forward. Then I may jump to “18th Century French army”, and so on. I am modifying my search terms using synonyms or other possibilities (ie “brass” and “bronze”) and then as I get new small partial identifications (Like: “Whatever it is, it is French”), I incorporate the clues into my search terms.

If I fail to get a general identification on Google image search, I will switch and try the same process on eBay, making sure I have “Description Search” checked on eBay Search Settings.

For our item in question, I tried several search term combinations to know avail.  Thinking letter opener/dagger, I then tried something like “17th century brass blade” and after looking at pictures until my eyes crossed, I hit a picture of a gentlemen’s smallsword or mourning sword like this one:


The assumption had been that the item was too small to be a sword handle.   It was actually what is called a Ricasso, which is just a small transition piece holding the finger guards between the much larger handle and the blade on this type of sword.

From there I went to several estate auction sites and back and forth to eBay.  I was not able to find the exact sword, but was able to narrow it down to 1670-1780, and probably French.


1) Did you know you can also view “Sold” and “Completed” listings on eBay? This gives you access to even more possibilities to help you nail the ID.

2) It is important to vary your search terms on eBay just like Google because people list items differently or are not sure what they are.

3) Go hardcopy. As a detectorist, I have a few books on common classifications of finds like buttons and Civil War relics I can refer to. A lot of books are also available online. Google Books is a great resource, especially for old books that may have the item, or an advertisement for the item in them.

4) Show it to experts. Message them if they are on the forum to make them aware of your post. Over time, I have become aware of people I consider experts (ie TurtleFoot on Friendly MD Forum) on certain subjects or killer researchers. They might know the detailed ID at a glance, but are no help if they aren’t aware of your item.

5) Rotate the photos. This may sound silly, but it is amazing how many times looking at a hard to identify item upside down or sideways changes the perspective and help you to see what it might be, or just makes the ID plain obvious where it wasn’t before. I might save the image to my computer and open it in my computer’s image viewer where I can rotate and zoom in and out to take a better look at the photo. Imagine how hard you laugh when you realize you could not read the faint text on the object because you were looking at it upside down!

6) How is the object designed to be viewed?  A great clue to an object’s identification may be whether it has details on both sides. This can help determine if the object was meant to be viewed from both sides, or whether it was mounted to something.

7) Process of elimination. If the object is hard to identify, trying to eliminate things it is not, and why it is not, can be helpful to get moving in the right direction. For example, often an object is too roughly made to be something you think it is, or conversely is not detailed or “fancy” qualify for a given ID. Or the object could not be this, because they did not have that type of material back then.  Or the size is wrong.

8) Watch and support any forum identification thread/s. If you have posted an item for ID on a forum, or are trying to ID one and are stumped, often others trying to ID the item can provide valuable clues that you did not already have. Respect and interact with others on the thread attempting to help identify the item. Keep an open mind and share information. If you disagree with an ID, or want to offer other ideas, be diplomatic. Try to avoid posting something like: “Sir. I’ve been collecting widgets for 45 years and you do not know what you are talking about!”

A lot of times I do not have the time or desire to research a particular item, so I will just toss some ideas out there to try and help others get on the right track. I will generally preface my post in such instances with “No idea but maybe.” or “Green light thinking:”. Personally I would just like to see the object identified. I do not have to be the big hero that figured out what it is. Be gracious if you have worked hard on an ID only to have an expert jump in and post the identification after one glance, especially if you had it all wrong!

9) Post your results on the forums.  This will help others ID similar items in the future.  Include photos to help validate your conclusions. Even if you only have clues or a partial identification, your work can be invaluable to helping someone else identify the item. “I do not know what it is, but whatever it is it is Continental.”, “It is definitely brass”, and “It is definitely not a button.” are all partial identifications and important clues.

Final Thoughts
Sure you can just start browsing the web and get lucky, but having a structured approach to identifying an item, starting with cleaning and photographing the item, then making note of all available clues followed by some guesses will get you closer to nailing that identification in a much quicker and efficient manner.  Remember it’s not what you do not know.  Identifying a mystery find is all about what you do know.

Note:  If you have not read Part I, you can catch it here.


Discuss This Article