Dig Diary Day 6: Mass Musket Balls and Scots Guard Buttons

It’s the first day of our second week here at Waterloo Uncovered! After a weekend of recovering from their exhausting hard week last week, the team are back and ready to do it all over again.

Waterloo Uncovered: Live!

You might have seen Waterloo Uncovered live this morning on BBC Breakfast, where Professor Tony Pollard and Waterloo Uncovered co-founder Mark Evans were interviewed by Europe reporter Gavin Lee, alongside several of our veteran participants. BBC Breakfast ran three fantastic pieces throughout the morning, in which veterans digging with Waterloo Uncovered gave their insight into the struggles of coming home from war, transitioning into civilian life, and recovering from injury and PTSD. They discussed how archaeology, and Waterloo Uncovered in particular, can aid in physical and mental recovery, as well as working as a method of discovering new interests, building new skills, and pursuing new educational or vocational paths. If you missed it, you can check out the BBC’s video on Waterloo Uncovered below. It was the second most watched video on the BBC’s website this afternoon – even above the Cricket World Cup final!

A Cornucopia of Cornfield Finds

In a cornfield in the vicinity of Mont-Saint-Jean, our team of archaeologists, veterans, students and metal detectorists have begun a large-scale metal detecting survey. The cornfield sits along the reverse slope where Wellington commanded British soldiers to lie down to protect themselves from incoming French fire. Later in the battle it was the scene of intense fighting between infantry and cavalry as the French sought desperately to break through the British and Allied line. The survey of this area has only just started, but Professor Tony Pollard already thinks it could be one of the most abundant areas of battlefield archaeology finds we have ever dealt with.

The cornfields were covered in yellow flags, each of which signalled a find our archaeologists excavated today! Photo by Chris van Houts.

So far, the results have been astounding. In only half a day, our team have discovered 58 (yes, 58!) musket balls of both French and British origin and even pieces of artillery shells! In fact, our team discovered so many finds this morning that they had to briefly pause the metal detecting so our surveyors could locate and plot the material. There are areas of the Waterloo battlefield which have unfortunately been affected by illegal metal detecting and looting, but the cornfield does not appear to be one of them – this means our archaeologists can properly excavate objects while recording their context, and catalogue and store them appropriately, preserving the knowledge that each find reveals to us.

While some of the French musket balls are likely to have been fired by carbines used by French cavalry, some may also be from the earlier infantry assault by the I Corps of the Armée du Nord led by D’Erlon in the afternoon of the battle, which targeted the left flank of the Allied line. This threatened, at one point, to push back the Allied line, but was thrown back and crushed by a charge of British cavalry, including the Scots Greys of the Union Brigade.

Metal detectorist and Dutch army engineer Moos Raaijmakers digs up a find in the corn fields. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Professor Tony Pollard summarised the finds of the day and explained how they demonstrate the value of archaeology in filling in the gaps in historical documentation with hard evidence:

“All in all it looks like we’ve got a very important part of the battlefield for which information is a little vague – there aren’t a huge number of accounts related to it, so we’re hoping archaeology will be able to provide a fresh perspective on that area of the battlefield.”

The Life Cycle of a Find

Glasgow University PhD student Euan Loarridge, whose research interests lie in battlefield archaeology and conflict history, is one the finds team again this year, and is responsible for what happens to finds from the cornfield after they are excavated.

Euan Loarridge, Glasgow PhD student. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Euan first volunteered with Waterloo Uncovered in 2016. His PhD supervisor is Professor Tony Pollard, the archaeological director of Waterloo Uncovered, who requested Euan’s help with cataloguing the project’s finds. Although Euan’s PhD is on the First World War rather than the Napoleonic Wars, he has always had an interest in the Battle of Waterloo – he was raised on stories of his ancestor, a member of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who fought at Waterloo, also in the Union Brigade of cavalry. After a successful first year, Euan has returned again and again:

“I’ve loved every minute of being on the project and being out here at Waterloo, and being with the veterans as well – that has just made it amazing.”

Euan was able to identify several of the finds from the cornfield – including a French coin. The coin is most likely a two sous piece from 1792. Though Louis the 16th was King of France at the time, the French Assembly had already taken power; as a result, the coin is covered with French monarchical and French revolutionary symbols. The coin would still have been in circulation at the Battle of Waterloo, so may have fallen from the pocket of a French soldier during the battle.

The French coin featuring monarchical and revolutionary imagery. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Euan notes that coins are particularly easy to identify in the process of authentication through their iconography:

“The whole point of a coin is that it’s representative of something – it has to tell you how much it was worth and when was it made so you can tell if you can use it or not.”

Reenactors make ‘reenactment coins’, which could feasibly have found their way into the cornfields around the Battle of Waterloo where reenactment displays take place. But Euan says they tend to be of different quality and are made of different materials, so are easy to exclude:

“What we do now is coat an iron disk in copper because its cheaper to make. In those days, they just made them straight out of copper or straight out of silver. To a certain extent the value of the coin is not the face value but the value of the metal in which they are made.”

But what exactly happens to our finds after they are discovered by our metal detectorists?

Following detection, finds are dug up by our veterans, then located using GPS equipment by the survey team, who give each find a unique identifiable number. They are then passed to the finds team, including Euan. Here, finds are laid out to dry when they are wet from the moisture in the soil they were removed from. The following morning, finds are ‘dry cleaned’, meaning they are scraped with a small toothbrush or lightly wiped to remove the worst of the soil from them, without water. Objects which are ‘wet cleaned’ can take a very long time to dry, so wet cleaning is often only carried out in post-excavation due to our limited time on site. Following cleaning, finds are taken to be photographed, and then are returned to Euan who uploads the photographs to our archive of finds, along with the location, period and context of the find.

A Double Scots Guards Button Surprise

At Hougoumont, there was an equally exciting discovery throwing new light on a well-known episode in the battle-the moment that the North gates were closed behind a party of French soldiers who had forced their way in.

This episode has long been celebrated in the regimental history of the Coldstream Guards, but there were other regiments involved too -and now we have the evidence to prove it. This afternoon, in Phil Harding’s trench close to the north gate, two Scots Guards buttons were discovered, one on top of the other!

The Scots Guards buttons in situ. Photo by Emily Glass.

The Scots Guards were formed in 1642, but did not officially become a part of the British Army until 1686. At the time of the Battle of Waterloo, the Scots Guards would have been known as the Third Regiment of Foot Guards. The regiment was involved in the defence of Hougoumont from repeated French attacks alongside the Coldstream Guards, 2nd Nassau Regiment, and 1st Hanoverian Brigade.

The closing of the gates at Hougoumont rightly remains something the Coldstream Guards are incredibly proud of, as seen when serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle found a button belonging to his regiment last week (you can read more about that discovery in our dig diary: http://www.waterloouncovered.com/dig-diary-day-3-of-reading-remembering-and-ridges). However, it’s now time to set the record straight and acknowledge the part played by soldiers from other regiments, as shown by the evidence revealed by Waterloo Uncovered’s dig.

Archaeologist Phil Harding, serving Coldstream Guardsman Oliver Horncastle and student Taylor Lee discussing how best to excavate the buttons. Photo by Emily Glass.

There is a historic rivalry between the Scots Guards and Coldstream Guards that continues to this day, largely ignited by the fame the Coldstream Guards achieved at Hougoumont – and still perpetuated on site by Professor Tony Pollard and former Coldstream Guardsman Mark Evans!

We hope that the discovery of the Scots Guards button, in the same trench where we found a Coldstream Guards button just last week, will go some way toward reminding the public of the contribution of Allied regiments to the defence of Hougoumont, alongside the Coldstream Guards. Wellington once said that “the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont” – and we believe that all those who contributed and lost their lives at Hougoumont should be remembered.

It’s only day one of the second week and we’re already inundated with finds! Stay tuned for more updates as the week progresses, the cornfields are further explored and the huge amounts of finds discovered today continue being identified.