Dig Diary Day 1: Waterloo Uncovered Rides Again

Battlefield Beginnings

On Sunday 7th of July, the Waterloo Uncovered team gathered at the main museum on the Waterloo battlefield, Memorial 1815, to officially kick off the fifth season of the project. As always, an international team of veterans, serving military personnel, archaeologists and students from a variety of backgrounds have joined us in Belgium. A series of briefings and talks on Sunday gave the whole team the opportunity to meet each other, and to get a better understanding of the day to day practicalities of the dig to come. After lunch, Professor Tony Pollard took the group on a short walking tour from the base of the Lion’s Mound to Hougoumont Farm, where Phil Harding summarised the results of our previous four seasons of excavation. Members of the team who were visiting the Waterloo area for the first time had the chance to see the iconic gates that slammed shut on attacking French forces, which Wellington said turned the tide of the battle, and the famous sunken lane described by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables which was used to transport ammunition to the defending troops holed up inside the farm.

Professor Tony Pollard takes the team on a walking tour in front of the Lion’s Mound. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Mont-Saint-Jean Farm

For the past four years, Waterloo Uncovered has focused its work on one of the most famous sites of the Battle of Waterloo: Hougoumont farm, where Allied forces held out against repeated French attacks on the 18th of June 1815. This year, the team will begin exploring the site of Mont-Saint-Jean for the first time. Northeast of Hougoumont and lying near the Lion’s Mound, Mont-Saint-Jean farm was used by Wellington as a strategically positioned field hospital during the Battle of Waterloo. At least 6000 wounded soldiers were treated at the hospital during the fighting on 18th of June 1815 and in the immediate aftermath of the battle, including the Prince of Orange, who would later become King William II of the Netherlands. Though not as widely known as our previous site of Hougoumont, Mont-Saint-Jean is no less important – in fact, the French initially called the Battle of Waterloo ‘the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean’. The site now houses a museum dedicated to the history of the farm and field hospital, as well as a microbrewery.

An aerial view of Mont-Saint-Jean farm today. Photo courtesy of Ferme de Mont-Saint-Jean.

Archaeology for Beginners: ‘Round Robins’

Our first morning at the new site of Mont-Saint-Jean was spent getting to grips with a range of archaeological techniques. The six professional archaeologists acting as team supervisors set up six stations throughout the orchard, where veterans and students could learn the fundamental skills they will be relying on for the next two weeks.  Sam Wilson explained the life cycle of a trench, from how to choose an appropriate dig site to why we backfill trenches when a season of excavation ends, and Emily Glass taught those new to archaeology the basics of levelling. Camille Machiels gave her group a crash course in site photography, while Phil Harding gave his group an explanation of archaeological contexts, stratigraphy, and how to recognise it while digging.

Emily Glass explains levelling to her team. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Alistair Douglas gave a presentation on the conventions of archaeological drawing and site planning, while Hilde van der Heul explained how to create a perfect square with tape measures for use in surveying – much more difficult than it sounds!

Alistair Douglas teaches his team about archaeological drawing and site planning. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Nearby, other members of the team began the first round of geophysical surveys on the Mont-Saint-Jean site with a ground penetrating radar survey, which uses electromagnetic radar pulses to detect structures and anomalies up to 15m below the surface.

Breaking New Ground

Just after lunch, the team began excavating their first trench beside the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean. We’re incredibly excited to start digging on such an important site – especially since it has never been excavated before!

Breaking ground at our brand new site of Mont-Saint-Jean farm. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Soon afterwards, serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle had the honour of discovering the first find of the 2019 season: a British musket ball! The musket ball wasn’t found in the newly dug trench, however; Oliver found the musket ball while searching the orchard with his metal detector. He described himself as “incredibly proud” to have found the first artefact of the year, and said he was “grinning from ear to ear” when he found the musket ball in the very first hole he dug. The Waterloo Uncovered team includes a number of specialist metal detectorists working alongside archaeologists, whose finds are carefully catalogued and stored by our finds team. Oliver is a keen detectorist – while he enjoys metal detecting in his spare time and even brought his own metal detector with him to Belgium, Waterloo Uncovered is his first experience of archaeology, and he’s looking forward to giving digging a go.

Oliver and his musket ball. Photo by Alexandra Cauvi.

Fingers crossed for plenty more finds (and sunny days) to come as the 2019 season begins to take shape!