Can You Identify These Relics From the Mud?

There may be no more maligned hobby in the world than metal detecting. Everyone has the image of the guy in the Bermuda shorts down on the beach at sunrise, with his little scoop sifter and headphones, wandering alone in search of diamonds and gold. From afar, he’s seen as the ultimate nerd. Well, I can sympathize with these unwarranted attacks on my metal-detecting brethren. I am a bottle digger and scuba diver. I don’t use a metal detector, and I’m mostly after glass bottles, but I often come up with relics made of various metals. And I generally feel like anyone pitying me as a nerd is not having as much fun as I am on a day I am digging. So it’s all good.

I often come across relics, and keep them even if they have no value, just because they fascinate me. The find is made even better if I don’t yet know what they were used for. The relics in this first picture are some of my better finds from over the years. Some have value, and some are just cool. How many can you identify—without reading ahead?

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How many of these items can you identify without reading ahead?

This first one I dug, believe it or not, was when I was a boy in 1973. It was deep in a trash dumpsite, buried in a layer of 1860s bottles and trash. It was a big clump of rust when I dug it, but after a month of careful cleaning with rust remover and a little toothbrush, it cleaned up nicely to reveal itself as a miniature cannon. Even the wheels and barrel turned. When I cleaned the inside of the 3-inches long barrel, a little bit of remaining black gritty powder came out. I remember, just out of curiosity, I laid some powder on a piece of wood in my kitchen sink, and lit a match to it. Sure enough, the powder crackled and sparked a little bit! I then learned that this wasn’t just a Civil War toy cannon, but that it was a Celebration Cannon that you could actually light and shoot off like a firecracker! I believe its value given its age, would be $200 or so, but as you can imagine, its worth more than that to me.

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This is not your ordinary toy cannon—it actually shoots off like a firecracker!

This ugly little thing came out of the mud just a couple of weeks ago. It really has no value in this condition, but I kept it because it is interesting. It is a miniature rubber “hot water bottle” made by Goodyear. It was a doll accessory, dating to the 1930s or so.

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Believe it or not, this is a miniature rubber “hot water bottle” made by Goodyear in the 1930s.

I had this heavy little iron high heel shoe for a couple of months before I identified exactly what it was.  It turned out to be a pincushion, with a felt covered cushion inside the body of the shoe, that you could stick pins into while sewing! Not sure of the value in this condition, maybe $20.

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Yes, this shoe is a pincushion.

My 10-year-old son dug this with me last winter. He pulled it up from a trash dump, about two feet down in a hole. We had no idea what this metal in the form of three elephants could be. It turned out to be a Victorian era lamp base!  It is not worth much of anything in this condition, but it is a good candidate for rewiring.

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A Victorian lamp base, not worth much in this condition, but a great candidate for rewiring.

This one has had me stumped for a long time. My best assessment is that it is a Victorian era chatelaine. A chatelaine was an accessory used by a high-society woman that was clipped around the waist of her skirt or dress. Most of the ones I have seen were used to hold silver chains or other items from her waist.  This one appears to be used to clip back a housecoat possibly. I guess this one still is a mystery! It is a strong metal, not soft like pewter or silver.

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This is a tough artifact to identify. It is possibly a clip used to hold a garment back.

This one I found during a dig, with permission, behind a home where a doctor lived in the late 1800s.  The dump had all sorts of odd medical items, test tubes, etc.  I thought this cobalt blue glass ball with metal trim had some strange use, like a quack medical item of some sorts.  It turned out to be a walking stick head. When I find the right size stick, I’ll see if I can’t fashion a suitable match. No value really, but interesting.

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This one turned out to be a walking stick head.

Of any relic I’ve ever dug, this one was the most fun to identify. When I dug it, it looked like it does in this photo, like a tin hockey puck. There was a picture of two people riding an old bike, and on it, it said in fancy script  “BICYCLIST CUR.” Man, I researched that word CUR forever, and never found it!  Eventually I realized that if I twisted hard, it would open up.  Not only did it open up, but it also sprung up, telescope-style, into a CUP. A bicyclist’s cup! It is worth $20-50 or so.

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This bicyclist’s cup actually opens up telescope style.

This is a tiny china bird that was dug by my buddy, from an 1860s outhouse pit in Cincinnati Ohio. But it is not just an ornamental piece. If you blow into the hole in its tail, it is a bird whistle. Its value $30.

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This is actually a whistle!

This is a beautiful brass architectural piece that was a doorbell ringer, dated 1868.  What beautiful detail! The value is about $50.

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This is a beautiful brass architectural piece that was a doorbell ringer, dated 1868.

Last but not least, is this wonderful Civil War army uniform belt buckle. I dug this about 10 years ago while digging bottles. It just popped up onto my lap while digging! Boy did that make my day! These bring a pretty penny at auction. I’d say this buckle would sell in the $100 to $250 range.

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Look at this wonderful Civil War army uniform belt buckle!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little tour of my “dug” relics collection. How many were you able to identify from the first photo?


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com

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