Dig Diary Day 4: Behind the Scenes

As the first fantastic week of Waterloo Uncovered 2019 nears its end, we’re taking you behind the scenes of the dig and shining a light on two often overlooked parts of the team: the specialists who help us discover our finds, and the photographers who record them.

Meet the Metal Detectorists

Dutch army engineer Moos Raaijmakers gives British veteran Shaun Stocker a crash course in metal detecting. Photo by Chris van Houts.

The Waterloo Uncovered team contains a number of specialist metal detectorists who work closely with our archaeologists to aid in the discovery of metal objects on site. Today, our metal detectorists have taken a number of veterans under their wing to teach them some core skills in a crash course on metal detecting.

Alastair Eager is a former Royal Marine, who served for 15 years before returning to civilian life around 2 and a half years ago. He has always had an interest in history and archaeology and was ‘eager’ to get involved in the Waterloo Uncovered project:

“It seemed like the perfect fit, as a former serviceman, and it’s been great meeting like-minded people and learning new skills.”

Former Royal Marine Alastair Eager, who tried his hand at metal detecting today. Photo by Chris van Houts.

In particular, Alastair has always had an interest in metal detecting, but has never had an opportunity to give it a try before. This morning, Alastair managed to get his hands on a metal detector for the first time. After a few disappointing finds that turned out to be bottle caps, Alastair was lucky enough to find two musket balls. Handling the metal detector has taken a bit of getting used to, but Alastair has made great progress today learning the difference between ‘sweet sounds’, which indicate something promising is beneath the surface, and ‘dead tones’, which signal less exciting finds.

Alastair enjoys the mixture of civilians, veterans and serving personnel on site, and tells us why he thinks the team work so well together:

“It’s a very good fit, because we all have that like-minded interest in the history and archaeology, but bring different aspects of our own different backgrounds to the dig.”

Once this year’s dig concludes, Alastair would like to return to education and pursue a degree in history or archaeology – he hopes to decide whether he is more interested in the academic or practical side of archaeology during his time with Waterloo Uncovered.

On Monday, our team metal detectorists will move into the cornfield just south of Mont-Saint-Jean farm. Here, they hope to discover further evidence of conflict, including evidence relating to Wellington’s ‘reverse slope’ defence. Wellington positioned his men behind the ridge our metal detectorists will soon be examining, known as the ‘reverse slope’, and ordered them to lie down in an effort to avoid French fire. While the manoeuvre was ultimately successful, there were still casualties when French troops stationed at La Haye Sainte fired 6-pounder guns blindly over the ridge. Check out yesterday’s dig diary to find out more about the cannonball we believe came from the attack on the reverse slope:

Finding a Passion for Finds Photography

What happens to an object once it has been detected and excavated?

All finds are bought to our dedicated finds team based at Mont-Saint-Jean farm. Each find is identified, then carefully cleaned, catalogued and stored in our archive of artefacts. Finds are then handed over to be photographed by our archaeologists, veterans and students.

The finds team prepare to photograph an iron nail. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Veteran Alex ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, formerly of the Fourth Royal Tank Regiment, has been working with the finds photography team since 2017. Mitch originally trained as a gunner but later became a member of his regiment’s clerical staff, developing skills in military law. He first joined the dig in the midst of an oppressive heatwave during our 2017 season, and after a sweaty first day of digging, was offered a reprieve:

“In his morning briefing, Mark [Evans, co-founder of WU] asked for a couple of volunteers to help with finds photography. Well me being an idiot, bear in mind the temperature was 34 degrees already, I thought: Cameras. Photography. Air-con!”

But Mitch had miscalculated. In 2017, the finds photography was carried out in the stifling attic of the Hougoumont farmhouse.

“It was like sitting in an oven. Over one afternoon, I think I drank 15 bottles of water.”

Fourth Royal Tank Regiment veteran and finds photographer Alex Mitchell. Photo by Chris van Houts.

But despite the heat, Mitch enjoyed the experience of photographing finds and feels he “found his niche” in the field. Mitch joined us once again in 2018 to continue developing his finds photography skills, and has been helping out once more this year, in addition to driving team members between Hougoumont and Mont-Saint-Jean.

Mitch feels that the best part of finds photography is that those who handle the finds have the opportunity to see everything, rather than only seeing objects dug up in the trench you are working in when digging. In his time he has had the chance to see, handle and photograph, musketballs, grapeshots, cannonballs and a wide variety of coins. He’s eager to come back next year, and “might even bring the wife!” When asked what he enjoys most about being part of the Waterloo Uncovered team, Mitch had this to say:

“My regiment didn’t fight at Waterloo because we only formed in 1915, but when you see the history and watch the television programmes, you can say: I’ve been there.”

Hard Work with Harding at Hougoumont

Over at Hougoumont farm, Phil Harding and his team of veterans and students have continued their hard work dealing with the mass of bricks in their most recently dug trench. Slowly but surely, they are removing the bricks, many of which are still connected by mortar, to discover what lies beneath them. The bricks comprise a small wall fragment that would have been part of the barn that once stood inside the walls of Hougoumont, beside the famous north gate that Allied troops slammed shut on the French soldiers that burst through after repeated attacks on the 18th of June, 1815. The barn was entirely destroyed by French bombardment during the fighting. The wall fragment that remains will be carefully dismantled, and each brick will be examined for graffiti that may have been left behind by the Allied soldiers that gallantly defended Hougoumont during the battle. By expending the trench in the direction of the wall fragment, the team hope to accurately map the footprint of the original Hougoumont farm barn.

Phil and the team review the wall fragment found near the north gate at Hougoumont farm. Photo by Chris van Houts.

In addition to the wall fragment and the Coldstream Guards button discovered yesterday, Phil’s team have found evidence of the original slate tiles of the farmhouse roof. The farmhouse was decimated by fire during the battle, when French shells crashed through the barn and chateau, setting them ablaze.

‘The heat and smoke of the conflagration were very difficult to bear. Several men were burnt, as neither Colonel Macdonell nor myself could penetrate to the stables where the wounded had been carried.’

Colonel Woodford on the fire at Hougoumont farm
The buildings of Hougoumont ablaze, depicted by Robert Alexander Hillingford. Postcard from the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive.

Stay tuned for more updates and exciting behind the scenes news as we finish our first week of digging!