Close up of Mont Saint Jean Bones

Waterloo Uncovered: Spring Dig Diary

Welcome to the latest edition of Waterloo Uncovered’s Dig Diary.

By Hattie Ford

In this edition:

  • We’re honoured with an award from the Prime Minister;
  • Archaeological finds give up their secrets (and be warned, some are quite grisly!);
  • Meet some of the Waterloo Uncovered team of Veterans and Serving Personnel.

Points of Light Award

Waterloo Uncovered co-founders Captain Mark Evans and Major Charles Foinette have just been honoured with a Points of Light award by the Prime Minister, recognising their valuable work in veteran welfare and recovery. Points of Light awards are given to outstanding volunteers and initiatives that are making lasting and substantial changes in their communities. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Waterloo Uncovered as “a wonderful testament to our nation’s history” and praised Mark and Charlie for “helping those who have bravely served our country to find purpose and wellbeing through your incredible archaeological project, preserving our heritage while supporting our fine veterans” in personal letters to the charity’s two founders. In their acceptance statements, Mark and Charlie described themselves as “delighted” to receive the prestigious award, and paid homage to the role of our amazing team of archaeologists, veterans, staff and students in making Waterloo Uncovered the successful and valuable initiative it is today. To read more about WU’s Points of Light award, including Mark and Charlie’s statements, please see the Points of Light website.

Captain Mark Evans and Major Charles Foinette, Waterloo Uncovered co-founders& Points of Light award recipients.

But this may not be the only award bestowed upon Waterloo Uncovered’s team this year. Waterloo Replayed: The Great Game has been shortlisted for the University of Glasgow’s Knowledge Exchange and Public Engagement Award, in the category of Best Community or Public Engagement Initiative.

Waterloo Replayed was a large-scale wargame event held in June 2019 at the University of Glasgow, organised by a team led by Professor Tony Pollard. Described as “an imaginative and ambitious exercise in knowledge exchange and public engagement,” Waterloo Replayed sought to break the record for the biggest 28mm table-top historical wargame ever played, with around 22,000 figurines in action and over 100 players refighting the Battle of Waterloo in miniature. The multi-day event bought together experienced wargame players and serving personnel and veterans for an exciting game watched by around 1000 spectators. In total, the project raised £20,000 to support Waterloo Uncovered’s work and to ensure it could continue into 2020 and beyond.  We wish the Waterloo Replayed team the best of luck as the winner of this award is decided!

Hot off the press: Waterloo Uncovered has just been awarded funding from the Veterans’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund under their Positive Pathways programme. This will enable us to: take some of our finds to show local veterans groups around the country; develop a creative arts-based course for a group of veterans visiting Waterloo.

Keeping the past alive: Conserving and Cataloguing our Finds

The work of the archaeologists doesn’t end when the trenches are back-filled. Over the last five years, Waterloo Uncovered’s team of archaeologists, students, veterans and serving personnel have excavated roughly 6000 objects from the sites of Hougoumont, Mont-Saint-Jean and Frichermont in Belgium. After the dig, all but the most specialised finds (see below: The bones of Mont-Saint-Jean) are identified, cleaned and photographed on-site by a dedicated team, and are then stored for transport back to L-P Archaeology’s lab in the UK. Each year, several veterans and students are recruited to help out with the finds during the dig and are taught skills including finds cleaning and identification.

Back in the UK, Waterloo Uncovered’s Finds Officer Hillery Harrison works on cataloguing, repackaging and organising each of the finds in our archive, so they can be easily and efficiently accessed by researchers interested in our findings. Hillery is also “triaging” the finds into those that can go into storage, those that require urgent conservation, and those that may be suitable for display at public events such as the upcoming Chalke Valley History Festival. She’s also working to produce an accessible collection of high-resolution photographic images of key finds. There’s a plan to train a team of veterans in specialist finds photography techniques to support this role throughout the year.

Veterans and volunteers sorting and identifying finds on site last year.
Photo by Chris van Houts.

One of the main priorities for conservation and treatment is the project’s substantial collection of coins. Coins can be incredibly delicate, and are highly susceptible to corrosion, which will eventually cause them to disintegrate if left untreated.  Many iron objects also require urgent treatment from a specialist to stabilise them. Some pieces of iron found on-site may at first appear to be miscellaneous lumps of little interest – but upon being X-rayed, several of these iron pieces have revealed themselves to be heavily corroded buttons that have rusted to the point of being unrecognisable. An X-ray can reveal the button hidden within the rust, which would otherwise go unrecorded. Another priority for conservation is a delicate set of jewellery in our collection, including a Napoleon brooch; Waterloo Uncovered is currently in the process of researching this jewellery to make sure it is sent to an appropriate specialist.

Over the coming weeks, Hillery will be working with some of the most interesting finds excavated last summer, including a plethora of buttons (both Coldstream and Scots Guard) found by the famous north gate of Hougoumont, and a 6-pound French cannonball.

Scots Guards Buttons, uncovered at Hogoumont Farm, followed by 6lb Cannonball found at Mont Saint Jean.

One of the most ‘explosive’ finds from last year was an enormous howitzer shell found in the last week of excavation, but due to the fact that it was still technically “live”, it was removed by the Belgian bomb squad, more used to dealing with the “iron harvest” of unexploded ordnance from the Two World Wars. Unfortunately it was not possible to render the shell safe and it has had to be destroyed.

Lifting the howitzer shell. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Although most of our finds are related to the Battle of Waterloo, finds from different periods also crop up and can help us understand the broader history of the sites we are digging on. One of the fascinating finds Hillery has identified in our archive is a Dorset button – a kind of craft-made yarn button characteristic of the 17th-19th centuries. However, this button was worn much more recently – it was actually from a female reenactor who visited Hougoumont for a re-enactment event in 2015. The reenactor who left this button visited the site around a month before Waterloo Uncovered arrived – and the only evidence we have found of her presence is one button. For Hillery, this makes it all the more impressive that we have found so much evidence from over 200 years ago. Another find that really made the team think was a small piece of embossed metal that looked just like a medieval coin; but was totally out of place where it was found. After a lot of confusion, the team realised that it was actually a commemorative medal from a medieval re-enactment event held at Mont-Saint-Jean, designed to look just like a coin! It’s a reminder that the history of the site didn’t end with the battle and evidence of the puzzles that our Finds team sometimes have to solve!

The Bones of Mont-Saint-Jean

Towards the end of our 2019 excavation, one of Waterloo Uncovered’s expert metal detectorists noticed a signal that indicated a large metal object buried in the west side of the orchard at Mont-Saint-Jean. Further excavation revealed the source of the signal: a degraded piece of iron plate that has yet to be conclusively identified but may have been part of an ammunition box or piece of medical equipment. When our team began carefully removing the piece of metal, they made an amazing discovery that served as a poignant reminder of the human cost of the Battle of Waterloo: a human leg bone.

One of the human leg bones discovered in the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean.
Photo by Chris van Houts. 

An estimated 65% of the injuries sustained by soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo were to limbs, and at the Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital alone roughly 500 limb amputations were carried out. The most famous of the amputations that took place there was that of the arm of Wellington’s military secretary, Fitzroy Somerset. According to eye witness accounts of the battle, amputations were so numerous in the Mont-Saint-Jean field hospital that limbs “piled up in the four corners of the farm’s courtyard”, and it is likely that the human bones discovered in 2019 are from one such ‘pile’. Amputations in this period would have taken place without anaesthetic and carried great risk – but in many cases they were also life-saving, as if the limbs were not removed they would become infected, leading to a slower and more painful death.

Over the course of several days of careful excavation, the team were able to uncover several additional limbs, bringing the total to three right legs, one left leg, and one right arm. One leg is still partially in the soil in the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean as it proved too difficult to safely remove before the end of the excavation season, while the rest of the bones were taken to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels to be analysed by experts. The trench in which the bones were discovered was refilled at the end of the 2019 season to protect the remaining bones, and will be reopened this summer for further excavation. Our archaeologists are almost certain that when the trench is reopened, it will reveal several more limbs deeper in the soil.

Archaeologist Caroline Laforest examining the bones at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

The bones that have been recovered were, unfortunately, quite poorly preserved due to the composition of the soil they were buried in. However, several interesting details could still be observed once the bones were fully excavated and had been cleaned and analysed by expert forensic anthropologists. For example, several of the bones were preserved well enough that marks from the surgeon’s saw used to amputate them could still be identified. The right arm showed evidence of a possible impaction of the elbow, and saw marks could be seen on the upper arm show where it would have been amputated. Of the legs, one of the right limbs was not preserved well enough to show the marks of amputation, but did exhibit clear tibia and fibula fractures that were the most likely cause of amputation. The left lower leg had a fractured femur, and showed evidence of an amputation just above the knee. Interestingly, a number of small iron nails were found just below the foot of this limb. This indicates that the soldier was still wearing a shoe when the limb was amputated, and that it was not removed before the leg was buried. The organic elements of the shoe, such as leather and cotton, would have deteriorated over time, leaving only the iron nails around the foot as evidence that the shoe was ever there.

Another of the legs also showed evidence of an amputation above the knee, and the cause of the injury that made it necessary was clear: the limb had been struck by a musket ball, which was still embedded in the lower half of the thigh! Only half of the musket ball remained in the bone, while the other half has yet to be found. It is possible that it will be discovered later this summer when the trench containing the bones is reopened.

Half of the musket ball that was embedded in a human leg bone.

Spotlight on Veterans: Emma Wray-Smith

For many of our serving personnel and veterans, Waterloo Uncovered is their first experience of working with heritage and archaeology. Many go on to develop a keen interest in history, which has a strong influence on the hobbies, career paths and educational choices they make upon returning home. But for some, their interest in history is a life-long one that predates Waterloo Uncovered, and even their military service. This is the case for former Women’s Royal Navy Service radio operator Emma Wray-Smith, who joined us on our 2019 summer excavation in Belgium.

Emma Wray Smith in uniform while serving with the Royal Navy, followed by Emma wielding her broadsword…

After extensive training, Emma first went to sea in 1991, where she was one of the first Wrens to serve on a ship with men, alongside around 30 other women. After a back injury on board caused her to reluctantly leave Navy life in 1995, Emma continued her military affiliation by becoming an MOD civil servant. She now works in Air Command for the RAF.

Before she became a Wren, Emma met a group of historical re-enactors at a castle near her home. Fascinated by their performance, Emma decided to join them, and has been a medieval re-enactor for more than 20 years. Emma and her group have travelled around the world educating the public, in full period dress as part of performances that can last an entire day. Emma and the group demonstrate a range of historical skills including archery, dancing and cooking, although Emma says she leaves the cooking to those with more culinary skill! More recently, Emma has been involved in the ‘Living History’ side of re-enactment, in which audiences are allowed to get up close and personal with performers rather than being behind a barrier, for a more authentic experience. While many re-enactors utilise their own tailoring skills to create their elaborate and historically accurate costumes, there is also a thriving network of skilled artisans across the UK that can create amazing pieces such as Emma’s suit of armour (below) which was made for her by a friend and talented craftsperson.

Emma’s main period of interest is the medieval era, but she was eager to learn, especially due to the own connection between the Navy, Lord Nelson, and the Napoleonic Wars. In Belgium, Emma helped drive one of the minibuses that allowed us to get around in Waterloo. But she also got stuck into the archaeology. Based at the former châteaux of Frichermont, Emma was one of the veterans involved in digging out the foundations of the now-destroyed buildings there. Unfortunately, the dig ended before they could reach the bottom of the cellar they were excavating, but she hopes to return next year to finish what she started. She would also like to try her hand at metal detecting with one of our experts – but her real interest lies in the finds.

Emma on site at Mont Saint Jean, 2019.

For Emma, Waterloo Uncovered was a “major bright moment in her year. The comradeship of the project was paramount for her, while being able to learn about the Battle of Waterloo at the site itself, and learning about archaeology from experts, was “the cherry on top”. Waterloo Uncovered aims to maintain an ongoing relationship will all the veterans who have previously dug with us, and Emma has enjoyed seeing what everyone else has been up to through our Facebook group, particularly those who have gotten involved in archaeology or metal detecting since the dig. She hopes to return to the project this summer, and would like to get involved with finds photography. We look forward to seeing her alongside other new and returning veterans in July!

Spreading the Word about Waterloo Uncovered

Waterloo Uncovered has recently been the subject of a brilliant article in the British Medical Association’s monthly magazine ‘The Doctor’, available to read online now.

The article features an interview with Waterloo Uncovered co-founder Mark Evans, in which he discusses the many struggles that injured veterans face upon returning home from military service, and highlights the work that WU does to support veterans’ welfare and wellbeing through archaeology. In addition, former surgeon and medical historian Doctor Mick Crumplin speaks about the history of medicine at Mont-Saint-Jean, which served as the main British field hospital during the Battle of Waterloo. Mick is the curator of the Military Surgical Museum at Mont-Saint-Jean, which features a diverse and fascinating collection of medical artefacts and objects from the Battle of Waterloo. Last year, Mick treated the veterans digging at Mont-Saint-Jean to a personal tour of the museum and his collection. To read more about the museum and some of Mick’s most interesting artefacts, see the dig diary post here.

19th century surgical tools from Mick’s collection in the Military Surgical Museum at Mont-Saint-Jean. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Waterloo Uncovered also had a presence at the recent Second Modern Conflict Symposium held at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, which covered a broad range of topics on conflicts from 1800 to present. Panels focussed on themes ranging from the connections between war and science, to new perspectives on counterinsurgency, to the remembrance and commemoration of various conflicts.  Waterloo Uncovered affiliated archaeologist and Glasgow PhD student Euan Loarridge was one of the speakers, and delivered a paper exploring the identity of a Glasgow ‘pals’ battalion in the First World War: the 17th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry. His paper detailed how this battalion’s community and culture changed over time through such bloody battles as the Somme, as different groups clashed over its ownership until it was disbanded in 1918.

CEO and WU co-founder Marks Evans and Wellbeing and Support Co-Ordinator David Ulke took the opportunity to promote our work at the conference via a poster and information stand entitled ‘Recovery into Discovery: Turning Conflict into Collaboration’. Their presentation not only summarised Waterloo Uncovered’s most interesting archaeological discoveries and finds so far, but also detailed the 12-month programme of wellbeing and recovery that each of WU’s participating will undergo.  The team hope to continue spreading the word about Waterloo Uncovered’s plans and successes at conferences, events and in the media throughout the year. We’re passionate about our work and would love to tell you more about it. If you would like us to come and speak at your event, please contact us.

In other news, veteran Ben Mead, who attended the summer 2019 excavation at Mont-Saint-Jean has recently published a book entitled ‘The Broken Soldiers: Suffering in Silence with Hidden Injury’. His book is a personal and powerful insight into the struggles many of those who serve are faced with when they return home from war – and the many ways in which they are left unsupported. The Broken Soldiers is now available in paperback and on Kindle on Amazon: http://www.shorturl.at/anwC6.

Coming soon:

  •  Follow our collection of exciting short films revealing the secrets of the 2019 dig;  
  •  Listen to our new series where leading historians offer original – and surprising perspectives on the battle.