John Henry Phillips

Summer excavation 2017

John is an archaeologist, but also freelance historian and writer, specialised largely in 20th century conflict. In 2015, while he was on the beach at Dunkirk, for the 75th anniversary of the evacuation, he met Tony Pollard who told him about Waterloo Uncovered. “I knew I had to be involved in some way. It sounded absolutely amazing. I was lucky enough to be invited to take part two years later in 2017. It is such a groundbreaking project in not just the archaeology, but the way it incorporates servicemen and women into the process. I’ve worked on both conflict archaeology projects and veteran based projects before and for me, Waterloo Uncovered is really the benchmark of how it should be done. As well as that, it is just such a historic place to excavate. To be able to say, as an archaeologist, that you’ve worked at Hougoumont Farm is just such an honour and a privilege.”

During his time on the excavation, John was part of the GIS (geographic information system) team. So day-to-day he marked in trenches, features and finds, finding the latter was particularly fun because “I got to go around the site seeing what everyone had uncovered!”. Whenever an archaeologist was needed on something, John could also be seen darting around the farm with a trowel in hand. On these occasions, he found a few musket balls and excavated grapeshot impact points: “I got to excavate a piece of grapeshot within the Killing Zone. When I’d cleaned it up, I could see the actual impact point on the ground and the direction it had been fired from. I remember looking up from the hole and seeing the wall of the farm about 2 metres in front of me and thinking what it must have been like to be heading towards it. That moment really brought home to me that the soldiers of Waterloo aren’t just names in history books but real men with real lives. Taking part in Waterloo Uncovered, uncovering the artefacts and hearing the personal accounts gave me an appreciation for the battle that went much deeper than just strategy and statistics. When I got to open up a trench within one metre of the famous North Gate, even though it didn’t yield much in terms of archaeology, it was an honour and slightly surreal to be doing it.”

Asked about his favourite part of the excavation, John replied “I loved the opportunity to work on such a historic battlefield and working alongside such an amazing group of archaeologists and servicemen and women. I don’t know why, but something special seems to happen when archaeologists and soldiers come together. There’s a real camaraderie there that you wouldn’t expect, and I made some great friendships. One of the servicewomen, Keannie Trick, took part in another project I was working on and it was brilliant to get to work together again having met at Waterloo.”

Since the 2017 summer excavation, John has, of course, kept on doing lots of archaeology. His latest project is leading a team in search of a lost shipwreck from the Normandy Invasion. You can follow his adventures on his instagram @relicsofwarfare or his website

John Henry Phillips