Battlefield Archaeology: An insider’s view on WW2 battle relics excavation

Bunker Archaeology, Interviews

By Pierre Kosmidis

Military archaeology, the research for battlefield relics dating to World War 1 and World War 2 is a widespread practice in many areas across the world.

In Europe, the fierce battles fought on the Eastern Front during WW2, produced millions of dead soldiers, many of whom lay where they fell.

Groups of metal detectors are searching the now serene areas and are locating many items, ranging from guns, ammunition, parts of vehicles, aircraft, bunkers, to human remains of soldiers who were killed during those battles, along with their personal belongings.

There is a big discussion on the ethical aspect of battlefield archaeology, as it has been proved to be a highly lucrative business, with many collectors worldwide prepared to pay thousands in order to get a rusty item, once belonging to a soldier.

In some countries, battlefield archaeology is associated to grave looting, as many researchers simply obtain the items they want to sell and just scatter the bones of the soldiers killed in action, desecrating their final resting place and disappearing all items, like dog tags and personal items, that could help identify those persons.

On the other side, there are military archaeologists, who do their research with respect to the fallen soldiers, try to identify the killed and work closely with state authorities, in order to ensure that personal belongings are returned to the families of the soldiers who never made it back home.

The Romanian Military Archaeology is one of these researcher groups who claim that they are the “good guys”, while German historian  says that “they (are) flogging militaria on site. Definitely NOT ‘good guys’ “. 

You can see their facebook page and draw your own conclusions.

Here is their story:

When and why did you start looking for battlefield relics?

The Romanian Military Archaeology group was founded at the beginning of 2015 by me, Michele, and Daniel.

When we met, we realised that we share some common interests, rooted into the Romanian history, especially around situations of armed conflict within Romanian territory.

Both having recently purchased our first metal detector, we decided to explore exactly what was interesting for us, Romanian battlefields areas from WW1 and WW2.

From the beginning, our intention was to explore the sector which defined our recent national history , starting this way also the first movement of military archaeology in Romania.

We don’t consider ourselves archaeologists, but “military archaeology” is the closest term to describe our work.

In Romania searching for militaria isn’t a widespread practice, we are very few compared to the number of registered metal detector users.

So this results in virtually virgin areas to explore, where we have started our work.

In a short time we had the luck to gain a lot of attention, finding our selves managing a site and page with over 10,000 followers, subscribers, likes and so on.

The core team of the R.M.A. group is formed around 5-6 individuals, but we have recently enlarged the team, adding another team operating in Moldavia, Iasi area.

What is the most important relic you have found so far and why is it important in your opinion? Did you ever find any personal stories related to the relics you found?

It’s hard to choose a single item, because there are many with relevant importance or particular histories.

We have found some very interesting personal items, like a gold wedding ring with the soldier’s wife name ”Henny Carlson”, and the date of their wedding 23.10.1914.

Considering that the battle which took place in the area where the ring was found is dated 1915, we can conclude that they were married for maybe a year.

We found near Bucharest  a lighter with the engraving ‘’Sevastopol – Crimea 1943’’, probably belonging to a soviet soldier which ended in Romania, during the fights around Bucharest, after having fought also in Crimea.

Or to a Romanian soldier who fought in Crimea and came back home to fight around Bucharest, we will never know.

We found also another lighter, this time in a WW1 area, this one reporting a Romanian name engraved ‘’Dumitru Cimpoca’’.

For us every object is important, everything that can be recovered and preserved, in order to become also inheritable.

I would add also the items recovered from the battlefield of Oarba de Mures.

What happens when you find the remains of a killed soldier? What do you do with them? There are many cases when gravediggers just throw the bones away and desecrate the tombs of the soldiers. What is your opinion?

I will start by saying that there is a bit of confusion around this subject.

There are a lot of people believing that every object found on a battlefield is looted from a dead body; that every identification tag found, is found with the owner’s body.

This isn’t true, and shall be told.

We have found many objects with names, but those are impossible to connect to their owners.

We have found several identification tags, we contacted the authorities asking about a procedure to identify the owners and relatives, but at least in Romania the bureaucracy makes this process impossible.

So we remain with this belongings, guarding them as something sacred.

Last year we have found two WW1 mass graves, containing a total of 11 confirmed bodies.

We alerted the local authorities and helped them to locate the exact perimeter of the graves, and in the recovering of all the remains, including the id-tags and other belongings.

The remains will be buried at the local Heroes Mausoleum.

We don’t associate with any kind of black digging activity.

We operate all our activities by following  the laws regarding metal detecting and national archaeological heritage.

The black digging is just another form of stealing, and thieves exists in every domain, not only in metal detecting.

We tend to believe that this situation is worse and more present in other places than Romania.

For example in Russia, where the number of troops and materials implied was enormous, and some epic battles took place, so also the density of relics in the terrain is very high.

There is a very well established market of relics coming from Russia, always fresh, weekly updated, even if in Russia the metal detecting was forbidden i think 2 or 3 years ago, due to this black digging activity, which developed into a black market.

We always alert the authorities when we find human remains or live ammunition/ordnance. Is also our interest, as history motivated individuals, to know that the soldiers remains, if found, will end properly buried.

Do you have a permanent exhibition of the relics found? What are your plans regarding these relics?

No, we don’t have a permanent exhibition, or own the space in order to organise something similar.

Some of the items are donated to the museums, the rest (what can be legally kept) goes into our collections.

To be honest, we tried to establish a dialogue with some institutions which should have been interested in our works, but without gaining any feedback from them.

Maybe in the future, when something, somehow and at some point will change, we will be able to present the relics in a proper way.

Are you working together with experts on archaeology, history etc.?

No, we are ‘’alone’’ in what we are doing. There is no interest coming from the archaeologists when it comes about WW1/WW2 contexts; they barely cover what is considered a priority in their work (national archaeological heritage) so there are no funds for researching recent history.

We operate by our personal funds, we aren’t funded by none, we aren’t associated to other organisations or parties, we are R.M.A.

Tell us a bit more about the war history of Romania; WW1, WW2 and your searches in those areas were the battles were fought.

I will describe in few words our area of operations.

Regarding the Romanian WW1 history and battlefields, we have everything concentrated in the area of the Carphatian Curvature, around the city of Brasov, and the Oituz area, around the city of Bacau.

In these locations took place the biggest clashes during WW1 within the Romanian territory.

Regarding WW2 we have locations disseminated throughout the country, around Ploiesti, where the Germans were controlling the oil refineries (later bombed by the US Air Force) or around Bucharest.

But the spots of the most concentrated WW2 activity, are located in the northern Romania, in Moldavia, where the soviet offensive breached into the Romanian territory, and later on in all the country.

We explore bigger or smaller spots from those areas, planning our trips even with months in advance, because we allocate much time also preparing the documentation and following the history of the places we’re going to explore.

We use history books, books written by local veterans, stories heard from locals in some remote village…

Describe yourselves: Are you professionals or hobbyists? What is your background?

We must declare ourselves hobbyists, even if we operate more like professionals :).

During the past year, we had encountered a lot of situations to manage, starting with the mass graves, ending in a mine field, so we were forced to learn by the circumstances.

In short time, we started reserching about digging techniques, methods in order to dig preserving the context of a possible grave, methods to dig without damaging the object, how to recognise live ammunition, how to…everything.

Each of us comes from different mediums: I am a visual artist, Daniel is a sales manager, Adi a chef, Ovidiu works at the ambulance service and so on.

Is metal detecting legal in Romania? (I ask because in Greece it is illegal).

Yes, in Romania you can go metal detecting if you follow some basic rules: you must register your MD to the authorities in order to obtain a permit, which allows you to detain and use the machine.

You must avoid archaeological protected areas, and you must hand to the authorities objects which could be of archaeological interest.

And you must cover your holes 🙂