The Eagle's Claws: A Post-Excavation Discovery

23rd August 2022
Hattie Ford

Find out more about an exciting discovery the post-excavation team working on our finds collection have made...

While our excavations take place during two weeks in July, post-excavation work on our 6,384 strong collection of finds continues year-round, led by our Finds Officer, archaeologist Audrey Charvet. Post-excavation work is an incredibly important part of the archaeological process, and involves cleaning and identifying finds, analysing them using techniques such as X-ray, and stabilising and conserving finds with the input of specialists.

During recent post-excavation work on what was initially thought to be an insignificant scrap of metal, an incredible discovery was made: an eagle's claws!

After thorough cleaning and analysis, this scrap of metal revealed itself to be part of a shako plate belonging to a soldier of the First Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne, who fought at Waterloo. The piece was discovered in 2016 found near the South Gate Hougoumont, likely lost during the intense fight for control that took place there in 1815.

A complete shako plate.
The fragments of the shako plate found in our collection.

A shako is a type of military headwear that has featured in the uniforms of French, Russian, British, Swedish, Portuguese, US and Prussian troops over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Shakos are identifiable by their tall, cylindrical shape and typically feature a visor to protect the wearer from the sun. They are made of heavy felt and leather, and French light infantry shakos such as the one our plate came from would have been adorned with a tricolour rosette and a pom pom or feather.

French infantry wore a specific type of shako, also known as a 'stovepipe' from 1801 onwards, including at Waterloo. The metal plate on the front would have depicted the Napoleonic eagle, and a number representing the regiment a soldier was from.

Our piece of shako plate shows the claws of the eagle, although the body has been lost, and the outline of a number 1, indicating that this shako belonged to a soldier of the First Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne.

Created in 1803 under this name, they were deployed on the left of the French line at Waterloo where they opened the battle with what was supposed to be a diversionary attack on the wood and chateau of Hougoumont. The entire division became embroiled in the struggle with only a handful of soldiers able to force their way into the chateau compound through the North gate.

An example of a Napoleonic era French shako.

Post-excavation work can reveal amazing discoveries like this from seemingly unimportant bits of metal, and having the ability to identify, helps preserve our shared history for future generations.

But taking care of and storing our 7,000 finds is expensive, especially for a small charity such as ourselves. If you'd like to help us preserve the archaeology of the Waterloo Battlefield and the legacy of those who fought there, please consider making a donation today.

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