It feels as if the Belgian sun could not wait to see us return, either. On the one hand this is great: we could not have wished for better weather to visit the Château d’Hougoumont, eat pizza in, and cruise around the fields next to La Butte de Lion (see picture). On the other hand, we can foresee that the ground will be dried out and hard. This will make it harder to dig into. Not that this will stop us, in any case. On y va!
At the end of this diary, you will find a wonderful column by one of our team members, Peter Ginn.
With ‘slight’ disapproval, Professor Tony Pollard tells us that the hill carrying the statue of the lion must be filled with all kinds of archaeological finds. In order to build it, the previous battlefields around it were scraped down and the land lowered significantly. This happened before anyone could pick out the musket balls, buttons, and anything else that the mount might still hold.
Column from our Team: Peter Ginn
For Want of a Nail: Getting There
This is my fourth expedition to excavate at Waterloo, so a screw in the minibus tyre might be seen as merely unlucky if this were the first one we had encountered. But it’s not, it’s number three and all of them have been picked up somewhere between London and arriving at the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium. To me they represent the multitude of hidden logistical challenges that are constantly being overcome to ensure Waterloo Uncovered runs smoothly.
Another challenge-in-transit was keeping the convoy of archaeologists, volunteers, veterans and serving personnel abreast of events on a football pitch far away in Moscow as the English football team battled with the Swedes to get through to the Semi-finals of the World Cup.
(Results: we arrived without further incident, oh, and England won 2:nil).
Our first full day on site has largely been taken up with a briefing and a battlefield tour but we have also been setting up and getting our ducks in a row ready to break ground tomorrow. I have been involved in this project from its conception partly due to my university friendship with Mark Evans and Charles Foinette but I have also always had an interest in social history-and that’s an important aspect of this project for me. Hougoumont is a farm and I’ve always had an interest in those! But it was also defensive and is effectively an evolution of the castle.
Walking within the walls the whole farm yard is geared up for heavy horses and talking to the soil scientists from Ghent university the ground in which we dig is some of the most coveted earth in which to grow arable crops (just ask the Romans). When we were bringing in the wheat harvest on the Victorian Farm (A BBC series I worked on recreating the life of a farm in Victorian times) the metal tyres of our cart got so hot they boiled the water in a small puddle at the end of the metalled lane.
The other problem with heat -and it is hot here right now – is that the wood of the cart wheels shrinks and the tyres can fall off. To remedy this carts were often wheeled into shallow water to swell the timber (this process inspired one of John Constable’s most famous paintings; The Hay Wain). One of the places we will be excavating is a pond that is marked on many maps close to the North Gate of Hougoumont and at the end of the hollow way. It is my theory that this pond was used for this purpose as well as the final destination of the surface water that flows out of the farmyard. So through archaeology we’re getting an insight into the daily life of a farm over hundreds of years, as well as the dramatic events of a single day of battle.
It is going to be an exciting two weeks of excavation made even more tense by the fact that as I write this England and Belgium are still both in the World Cup. What could top a perfect fortnight is if I get Phil Harding to teach me how to knapp a musket flint but he, like all of us, is a very busy person…..