GEophysics phd complete: congratulations duncan!

We’d like to say a huge congratulations to archaeologist Duncan Williams, who has just successfully completed his PhD, focussing on the geophysical survey of the Battle of Waterloo!

Over the last few years, Duncan has been exploring the battlefield of Waterloo using a unique tool: geophysical survey.

As part of a PhD jointly awarded by Ghent University in Belgium and Bournemouth University in the UK, and run in collaboration with Waterloo Uncovered, postgraduate researcher Duncan has conducted the largest ever geophysical survey of a European battlefield, investigating over 100 hectares of land using multiple methods of non-invasive survey including magnetometry and electromagnetic induction.

His work identified a number of anomalies across the battlefields that may have represented anything from mass graves, to forgotten structures, to large collections of metal. Many of these anomalies have formed the basis of Waterloo Uncovered’s past and future excavation as we endeavour to uncover what lies beneath the ground.

Most recently, two anomalies located to the south of Hougoumont farm were excavated by the Waterloo Uncovered team, and were identified as a clay quarry and small chapel respectively – adding previously unknown landscape features back onto the map of the Waterloo battlefield.

Elsewhere, Duncan uncovered an anomaly speculated to be a forge-like feature at the foot of the Lion’s Mound, which may have been used to produce materials to build the iconic structure – although this anomaly is yet to be investigated.


After successfully defending his PhD, we sat Duncan down to reflect on his achievement and what his work has added to our understanding of Waterloo:

What did you enjoy most about the experience?

The opportunity to work on such an iconic battlefield was an unforgettable experience. It was a joy to collaborate with Waterloo Uncovered and work with such an international team made up of specialists in so many different areas. Lastly, getting to know and work alongside veterans and serving personnel was an incredible experience. Seeing the impact that the project was having for so many was truly eye-opening and rewarding.

What were a couple of your most interesting discoveries or conclusions? 

The most interesting general conclusion was the demonstration of the effectiveness of large-scale geophysical survey for identifying objects and features of interest at these kinds of sites. The fact that we were able to efficiently cover large swaths of the battlefield in a relatively short period of time reinforces the need for this kind of survey work, which is unmatched in its ability to provide perspectives on buried archaeology across large areas. Specifically, we were able to identify archaeological features that appear to be directly related to the battle or its immediate aftermath (examples include the recently excavated quarry pit and chapel near Hougoumont Farm, and the forge feature near the Lion Mound). It would have been very difficult to initially identify these features using more conventional methods of archaeological excavation. We’ve also gained insight into the nuances of the soil environment at Waterloo, combining geophysical survey with satellite remote sensing for a more thorough understanding of erosion processes. This will enable us to better understand the impact of erosion on the archaeological record and more effectively target areas of interest.

What do you think your work has added to our wider understanding of the Battle of Waterloo?

The archaeological work undertaken by Waterloo Uncovered has provided new perspectives on the Battle of Waterloo, using material evidence to enhance the narratives found in the extensive documentary record surrounding the battle. The archaeological data represents a separate line of evidence, independent from the historical one. This gives us unparalleled insight into the minutiae of the battle and the experiences of the individuals involved, as well as the impact on the broader landscape and those inhabiting it.

My work has provided avenues of further exploration for the archaeological team in the years ahead. By identifying potential features and areas of interest in the landscape, it has raised a new series of questions and targets for future work which should continue to provide exciting new perspectives on the battle. As the largest battlefield survey of its kind, it has also shown the potential for the use of these methods more broadly on other battlefield sites by providing insights not possible from other methods.

What are you plans for the future?

In the immediate future, I am returning to Canada to work in preventive (development-led) archaeology with the firm Matrix Heritage (based in Ottawa, Ontario).  I look forward to applying what I’ve learned during my PhD in this endeavour. I plan to continue to remain engaged with the important work conducted by Waterloo Uncovered and look forward to exciting future discoveries.

We wish Duncan all the best with his future work and hope to see him at Waterloo again soon!

Want to know more about geophysical battlefield survey and Duncan’s research? His article ‘Geophysical approaches to the archaeological prospection of early modern battlefield landscapes: a review of methods and objectives’ is free to read online:


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