Identifying Your Unknown Finds – Part I

Identifying Your Unknown Finds – Part I

It’s one of those things about metal detecting.  You find something.  It looks old.  It looks unusual.  It looks rare.  It looks like it may definitely be valuable, or a keeper for your collection.  But one problem – you have absolutely no idea what it is.

The process of identification of any object, known or unknown, can be broken down into a series of partial identifications.    Let’s take a coin, for example.  Though this might take all of 7 seconds, the identification of an easy object might include these steps:

1) You look at the coin and – based on the size and the fact that it is probably copper – quickly deduce that it is a penny.
2) You look at the penny and see the familiar face of Lincoln on it.   You now know it is a Lincoln Cent, minted between 1909 and current day.
3) You flip the penny over and see wheat stalks on the back.  You now know the penny was minted between 1909 and 1958.
4) You check the date and grade the penny to try to give it as detailed and precise identification as possible

The identification process is simply moving the object through a series of partial identifications using clues.   With each new partial identification, the true identity of the object becomes clearer.  

Some objects may never be precisely identified.  You only hope to get an acceptable identification that you can live with or establishes a clear value if you are interested in capitalizing on the find.   In general, for example, the older an object is with no date markings, the more likely the object can only be assigned a probable date range at best.  The older the object is, in most instances the wider that date range may be.

Now let’s go through the process to identify a completely unknown item.   I assisted a forum member with an identification of a very cool find recently, so I am going to use that as an example.

Prepare the Item for Identification
Before you begin identification, make sure the item has been carefully cleaned as thoroughly and carefully as possible (dirt, build-up, rust removed) so that any and all available markings, details and other clues are apparent.     Here is our target object.  It is mostly cleaned, but not so much as to damage the object:


Photograph the Items 
If you are trying to identify an object for someone else via the internet, you need clear photos of both sides as well as major angles and with close-ups of any markings or important details.  If you are getting help from forum members, you should provide the same.  Here are two additional photos provided:

identifyitem2 identifyitem3

What do you know about the item?
Working with the object’s owner, we determined several important clues:
– The object had been found in a field where many objects from the 1700’s had been found
– United States, Colonial State on East Coast, at about 8 inches
– The object is likely made from brass or bronze
– We know the object’s size (shown in comparison to the quarter).
– The object clearly looks to have been part of a larger object.  Something clearly fits into the top and bottom.

None of these clues seem very helpful by themselves, but each clue can help the item fit into or reject it from, certain possible identifications.

What are the markings on the item?
Our item had no markings.  Markings such as letters, symbols, manufacturer names, hallmarks, countries and dates are a tremendous help in the identification process.   Make sure the object is clean and use a magnifying glass to make sure you note every available marking.

Does the item clearly fit an obvious classification?
Our object did not, but make note if it does.  This will be persistent parts of the search terms on the internet.  Some examples are:  The object is a button.  The object is a coin.  The object is a bullet.  The object is a buckle.

What do you suspect about the item?
We also had certain clues that helped us, but things we were not confident about, like:
– It appears to have loops for a persons fingers to fit in.  These loops are broken.
– The partial protrusions above the loops may be part of a hand guard
– It has figures on it that look Roman or Greek (because of the columns mostly)  but we’re not sure.  There are also banners above the figures.  The item has a “French Empire” look to it as a result.

Does the item appear to be military?   If so any clues as to country or military branch?
Military items are widely collected, so designating the item as such and suspecting additional details can help.  Our item did not seem military to us.

Does the design of the item suggest additional clues?
Is it “artsy” looking like jewelry or decor?  Or is it functional looking like hardware, tool or weapon?

Based on the initial clues, What does the object look like it might be?
A polling of forum members was decidedly in favor of a dagger handle or part of a letter opener.
I played devil’s advocate and offered these possibilities: Part of a fancy mantel clock finial, candlestick holder, desk lighter, and part of a trophy.
Someone insisted it was the hilt of a ceremonial Viking dagger.

Keep an open mind.
Often, an unusual object looks so much like something it is not, it impedes the identification as its actual identity is not even considered. A lot of times we will be convinced that the object is “some type of _____?” and inadvertently get the id off track.

Consult your memory and personal knowledge
Often times an object looks familiar but you just can’t place it. If this is the case, spend some time thinking and flashing through your personal history in your mind to try and get clues like “I saw something like that at a flea market one time” or “I saw one like that when I was putting together a fence gate.”

Consider mundane and not valuable things.
Often the item was not lost, it was discarded, forgot about, or thrown away. Our desire for the object to be something really cool or valuable often gets in the way of the actual identification.

Importance of Understanding Object’s Size
If you do not have the object in front of you,  make sure you understand its width, length and height prior to attempting to id. I’ve seen some pretty hilarious identifications where the object turned out to be way too small or large to fit the offered identification.  If you are relying on photos or providing photos and no clear measurements are provided, the photos should include a common item, usually a coin, to clearly illustrate the size.

Build a list of search terms

Using the list of known and suspected clues, build some search terms for eBay and Google.  Some of ours were these:
– Brass Letter Opener
– Brass Dagger
– 18th century Brass
– 19th century Brass

…..and so on.  We also made a note to try “Bronze” instead of Brass.  You may have to try many combinations of 2-4 clues to get on track.  Always use your clear object classification in your search terms (ie Button).  We didn’t have any.



There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Donnie Vaughn at 3:22 pm

    I wouldn’t have any idea but I really liked the article and the tips that it provided. We all find things that we just don’t know what they are but they are always fun to try to figure out.

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