Original data comprising of newly found battlefield descriptions and drawings, made by people who visited in the days and weeks following Napoleon’s defeat offer new insights into what happened to the bodies of Waterloo soldiers.
The notion is supported by the fact that very few human remains have been discovered from an event that was so bloody and resulted in the deaths of thousands.
But lead expert Professor Tony Pollard says it’s not quite a “case closed.” He published his findings in the peer-reviewed Journal of Conflict Archaeology today, exactly 207 years after the historic conflict.
The director of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology shows recently uncovered battlefield reports and illustrations made after Napoleon’s defeat.
Letters and personal memoirs from James Ker, a Scottish trader living in Brussels at the time of the war, who visited in the days after the conflict and described men dying in his arms, were among them. Three mass graves comprising up to 13,000 people are described in detail in the visitor accounts.
Will these new findings lead to the discovery of long-lost bones of those who died in this fight, which brought an end to a 23-year-long conflict?
Professor Pollard believes it is doubtful.
“Artistic licence and hyperbole over the number of bodies in mass graves notwithstanding, the bodies of the dead were clearly disposed of at numerous locations across the battlefield,” according to the professor, “so it is somewhat surprising that there is no reliable record of a mass grave ever being encountered.
“At least three newspaper articles from the 1820s onwards reference the importing of human bones from European battlefields for the purpose of producing fertilizer.”
“European battlefields may have provided a convenient source of bone that could be ground down into bone-meal, an effective form of fertilizer. One of the main markets for this raw material was the British Isles,” the expert adds.
“Waterloo attracted visitors almost as soon as the gun smoke cleared.
“Many came to steal the belongings of the dead, some even stole teeth to make into dentures, while others came to simply observe what had happened.
“It’s likely that an agent of a purveyor of bones would arrive at the battlefield with high expectations of securing their prize.
“Primary targets would be mass graves, as they would have enough bodies in them to merit the effort of digging the bones.
“Local people would have been able to point these agents to the locations of the mass graves, as many of them would have vivid memories of the burials taking place, or may even have helped with the digging.
“It’s also possible that the various guidebooks and travelogues that described the nature and location of the graves could have served essentially as treasure maps complete with an X to mark the spot.
“On the basis of these accounts, backed up by the well attested importance of bone meal in the practice of agriculture, the emptying of mass graves at Waterloo in order to obtain bones seems feasible, and the likely conclusion is that.”
However, as part of his job as Lead Academic and Archaeological Director at the charity Waterloo Uncovered, Professor Pollard will help to lead a “ambitious” several-year-long geophysical study, involving veterans who will join the dig to provide insight to world-class archaeologists. In exchange, they receive care and recovery.
“The next stage is to head back out to Waterloo,” adds professor Pollard, “to attempt to plot grave sites resulting from the analysis of early visitor accounts reported here.”
“If human remains have been removed on the scale proposed then there should be, at least in some cases, archaeological evidence of the pits from which they were taken, however truncated and poorly defined these might be.
“Covering large areas of the battlefield over the coming years, we will look to identify areas of previous ground disturbance to test the results of the source review and distribution map, and in conjunction with further documentary research and some excavation will provide a much more definitive picture of the fate of the dead of Waterloo.”
If the crew discovers anything, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime find.
During the construction of a new museum and parking lot at the site in 2015, a human skeleton was discovered. The Waterloo Uncovered crew discovered amputated human limb bones in an excavation of the main allied field hospital in 2019. A skeleton of unknown provenance can also be seen in the Waterloo Museum.
No further substantial remains have ever been discovered.
Image Credit: JAN WILLEM PIENEMAN LA BATAILLE DE WATERLOO
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