Winter Dig Diary

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

By Hattie Ford

In this edition:

  • Get all the details on our highly successful fundraiser;
  • Our veterans collaborate with the British museum;
  • Learn about life after the dig and how our participants are making a difference;
  • A focus on finds and spreading the word about WU!

In the months since our 2019 excavation at the battlefield of Waterloo ended, our veterans, serving personnel and archaeologists have been as busy as ever. In fact, so many interesting things have happened since the summer that we’ve decided to keep our Dig Diary going throughout the year. We’ll keep you updated with all the latest on our projects, events and finds, our archaeological programme for the coming years, our programme of welfare and support, and how we’re making an impact. So from now on, make sure you check our website or social media every couple of months to stay up-to-date with our work and with all the exciting things members of the Waterloo Uncovered team have been up to. We hope you enjoy!

A large crowd gathered in the historic Middle Temple Hall for the A Night To Remember event
A Night to Remember in the historic Middle Temple Hall. Photo by Tucker Images.

A Night to Remember

On the 11th of November, Waterloo Uncovered hosted our annual fundraising event: ‘A Night to Remember’ – and it certainly was. Hosted by Gyles Brandreth, the fundraiser took place in the historic Middle Temple Hall in London and brought together veterans and serving personnel, archaeologists, members of the Waterloo Uncovered team and many of our biggest supporters. Guests were treated to a cocktail party, entertaining anecdotes from Gyles and a thrilling auction. This year, thanks to the generosity of our guests, A Night to Remember has raised an incredible amount: over £100,000!

Your generosity means we can continue our important work of supporting veterans and serving personnel, developing our archaeological programme to uncover the mysteries of the battlefield at Waterloo and making sure our finds are well understood and cared for. Without the continued support of those who follow our progress and donate to our cause, our work would not be possible. We want to thank everyone who attended, and hope to see everyone who couldn’t make it next year.

Members of the crows laughing at a speech being given, holding drinks and enjoying themselves
Guests enjoying themselves at our annual fundraising event. Photo by Tucker Images.

Veterans of the Wars: from Troy to Waterloo

Homer’s epic tale of the siege and fall of Troy is one of the greatest stories about war and conflict ever told. Now the British Museum in London has created a block-buster exhibition exploring the myth and reality of the Trojan Wars –and members of the Waterloo Uncovered team of military veterans have been at the heart of the exhibition’s development.

‘Troy: Myth and Reality’ tells the tale of the Trojan War, and follows the powerful legacy of the myth through a diverse range of artworks and objects in the museum’s collection. The sensational exhibition is the museum’s first display on the legendary war since the discovery of the remains of the city of Troy nearly 150 years ago, and presents the archaeological evidence that this lost, mythical city may have really existed.

Some of the sculptures on display in the  British Museum as part of the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition
Some of the sculptures on display in Troy: Myth and Reality. Photo from the Trustees of the British Museum.

As part of the creation process, some of our serving personnel and veterans shared their unique perspective of the realities of war, providing quotes and audio recordings of their diverse experiences of conflict – and its aftermath. The participants were able to give valuable insights into many of the objects and artworks in the exhibition, describing how the characters in each piece would be feeling when faced with situations such as: grieving for a friend, leaving their families behind or returning home from war, from their own personal experiences.  

Our veterans’ valuable contributions have helped exhibition creators and museum visitors alike see the humanity within the dramatic and legendary tale of Troy, and have given important context to the objects and artworks on display. Troy: Myth and Reality is open daily until the 8th of March 2020 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery of the British Museum. If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, make a visit to the exhibition your New Year’s resolution!

Life Beyond the Dig: Jim Howdle

Jim Howdle on site in 2019, holding a mattock and standing in a trench
Jim Howdle at Hougoumont Farm, 2019.

Every year, we take an ever-growing group of veterans and serving personnel to the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium for a whirlwind fortnight of excavation. But Waterloo Uncovered doesn’t end when the digging stops. Each veteran and serving personnel member of the team embarks on a nine-month programme to develop new skills, and to challenge themselves to move forward with their lives. We aim to maintain a connection with the veterans who join us each year, to provide a lasting network of support, friendship and opportunities. Many of those who dig with us end up taking up new hobbies, looking into new career paths, returning to education or developing new passions inspired by their experience with Waterloo Uncovered.

We caught up with one of this year’s veterans, former paratrooper Jim Howdle, who joined us on the dig in July, to chat about some of the exciting things he has been up to since then, and find out what life beyond the dig entails.

Homelessness is a serious issue in the UK, and one that Jim has long been concerned about: according to the charity Shelter, there are at least 320,000 homeless people in the UK – and this may be a low estimate. This topic is one that is close to our hearts here at Waterloo Uncovered as, due to a lack of support for returning service personnel and difficulties adjusting to civilian life, an estimated 3,500 of those sleeping rough in the UK are veterans. In the freezing winter months, those who find themselves without anywhere else to go are at their most vulnerable and are reliant on charities and local shelters for support. Jim had previously considered volunteering at one of these shelters, but after a conversation on this year’s dig with a member of the Waterloo Uncovered Welfare Team, he realized he could directly make a difference and decided to act.

Images of the catering and sleeping facilities in the Snowflake Night Shelter in East Sussex

Jim has just completed his first night shift at Snowflake Night Shelter, a temporary rolling night shelter in East Sussex for those who find themselves sleeping rough in the extreme winter months. They provide meals, hot drinks, warm beds, support and advice to those who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets in freezing temperatures. Snowflake Night Shelter’s important work is reliant on donations, and if you would like to donate or become a volunteer like Jim, please see their website at

This year, Jim also started an Environmental Studies degree course with the Open University. Jim had considered returning to education before, but was unsure of what funding and support would be available to a mature student. After conversations with other veterans at Waterloo this year who had gone through the process themselves and were thoroughly enjoying their time at university, he realised getting back into education was a real possibility and decided to give it a try. Jim’s choice of subject was motivated by his concern for the environment and a desire to learn the truth for himself in the face of often conflicting and confusing information in the media. Once he’s got to grips with the subject, he hopes to be able to educate his children on the topic too.

For more information about the requirements of returning to education with an Open University course, see:

Since the dig, Jim has developed a new passion for metal detecting, and has even bought his own metal detector. He was able to learn the basics of detecting in Belgium, and was one of the many veterans who were inspired by Waterloo Uncovered’s specialist archaeological metal detectorist, Gary Craig. Gary’s contagious enthusiasm and patient teaching have helped many participants understand the role of responsible metal detecting in an archaeological excavation. Jim explains that he feels very privileged to have been able to detect at the battlefield of Waterloo, and that it was like “starting at Premier League level”. He also has particularly fond memories of working with Phil Harding in the courtyard at Hougoumont farm. Over the course of the dig, he was lucky enough to find several Coldstream Guard and Scots Guard buttons, an experience he described as “like touching history”. You can read more about these finds here:

Jim has been attending as many local metal detecting rallies as possible, and has so far found pre-decimal coinage and ammunition – but he’s still waiting to find a Saxon hoard. In the New Year, he hopes to meet up with several other WU Veterans who have been bitten by the metal detecting bug, and we wish them the best of luck in their hunt.

Veteran Jim Howdle and metal detector specialist Gary Craig dig up a find on site in 2019
Jim and metal detector specialist Gary Craig

A Summary of the Summer: what we found on the battlefield

Struggling to remember all the exciting finds and revelations from this year’s dig? Here’s a refresher on the most important discoveries from this summer’s excavations:

This summer saw Waterloo Uncovered return to the famous site of Hougoumont farm with a group of new and returning veterans and serving personnel for the fifth consecutive year. The buildings of the north courtyard, which saw intense fighting between the French and Allied troops including the Coldstream Guards, were burnt down during the battle. Excavations by the WU team have revealed the original layout of these buildings, including the barn beside the famous Hougoumont north gate. The resulting floor plan shows that the barn was much wider than originally thought, and that there would have been very little space between the western barn wall and the north gate when it came under attack. When French troops broke through the north gate into the defended courtyard they would have found themselves in an exceptionally narrow bottleneck – this discovery paints a bloody picture of the resulting carnage as British guardsmen fought their way through the flood of bodies to close the gate and eliminate the invading enemy troops.

A painting entitled Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, Robert Gibb, 1903, held by the National War Museum showing British troops holding back the French who are trying to break through the gate and take Hougoumont
Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, Robert Gibb, 1903, held by the National War Museum.

The closing of the gate at Hougoumont is one of the most famous skirmishes of the Battle of Waterloo, described by Wellington as turning the tide of the battle against the French. This heroic act is typically attributed to the Coldstream Guards, and is something the unit is rightly proud of to this day. In previous years, Waterloo Uncovered discovered a Coldstream Guards button in the vicinity of the north gate that proved their vital role in defining the Hougoumont courtyard. But this year a team of veterans led by archaeologist Phil Harding turned up something particularly exciting that changed the narrative surrounding the closing of the gate: as well as finding more Coldstream Guards buttons, they found a number of Scots Guards buttons too. This discovery confirmed that the Coldstream Guards were not alone in fighting their way to the gate, and gives the brave Scots Guards who fought alongside them, the recognition they deserve.

By the southern wall of the garden at Hougoumont, our metal detectorists have discovered a concentration of French musket balls that reveal the pattern of French attacks against the outer wall. Additional surveying of the area inside the garden has revealed that several French soldiers must have managed to scale the wall – we found the spent musket balls they fired – but they were likely killed before they could progress too far into the grounds. The attack on the southern wall is entirely unknown in British accounts of the fighting at Hougoumont, and only known from vague references in French accounts, so the light our excavations have shed on the incident is of particular importance.

Team members digging up a trench in the orchard of Mont Saint Jean farm
Team members in the orchard of our new site of Mont-Saint-Jean farm. Photo by Chris van Houts.

One of the most exciting features of this summer’s dig was the opportunity to work on a whole new site on the battlefield –and one that had never been excavated before. Nowadays a brewery, the farm of Mont-Saint-Jean was used during the battle as the main Allied field hospital. Over 6000 injured soldiers received treatment within its walls. Much of our work focused on the orchard to the east of the farm buildings, and right from the start, we made some surprising finds. Long thought to be a safe place well behind the main battleground, the land outside the walls of Mont-Saint-Jean started to yield up a large number of French and Allied musket balls, suggesting that fighting raged much closer to the hospital than we had once thought. We also dug up a large unexploded howitzer shell, probably fired high into the air to land amongst the Allied troops sheltering behind the ridge on the “reverse slope”. Given the heavy rain that fell through the night before the battle, this shell buried itself deep in the soft mud of a ploughed field. Although for us it was a major archaeological find, as a piece of unexploded ordnance it was also a hazard that required a call to the Belgian bomb squad. More used to dealing with the lethal legacies of two World Wars, they were interested, if a bit bemused, by this piece of unfinished Napoleonic business; the offending howitzer shell was carefully taken away to be destroyed alongside the bombs and shells of the Western Front.

Veterans Oliver Horncastle and Alastair Eager lifting the large Howitzer shell from the ground
The howitzer shell being removed from the ground. Photo by Chris van Houts.

Then in the last week of the dig, came an even more exciting and somewhat poignant find.

One of our metal detectorists noted a signal on the western side of the orchard. Excavation revealed a small piece of iron – but something much more interesting was hiding beneath it. Digging further, our team revealed a number of human bones, most likely from amputations in the field hospital, and subsequently thrown into a ditch outside. In the archaeological trench, we’ve so far discovered at least three amputated legs and an arm bone, some of which still bore the surgeon’s cut marks from the operations to remove them in an attempt to save the soldiers’ lives. Closer examination revealed evidence of the injuries that had caused them to be amputated including one shattered limb which still had the musket ball lodged inside the bone! A deposit of this nature is totally unique – we don’t know of any other collection of amputated limbs found in the context of a Napoleonic field hospital anywhere else. The bones are currently undergoing further analysis, and their future is not yet decided, although all human remains encountered by Waterloo Uncovered will be treated with the utmost respect at all times.

One of several human limbs found in the Mont-Saint-Jean orchard, still partially in the ground
One of several human limbs found in the Mont-Saint-Jean orchard. Photo by Chris van Houts.

For more information on this summer’s most exciting archaeological discoveries, watch out for Professor Tony Pollard’s upcoming article entitled ‘Taking Lives and Saving Lives: Archaeologies of Combat and Combat Surgery on the Battlefield of Waterloo’ in an issue of Current World Archaeology sometime in the New Year –we’ll post further details on our website.

Battlefields Uncovered Summer School 2020

In the summer of 2020, Waterloo Uncovered will team up with the University of Utrecht for the third year to deliver an exciting Summer School aimed at veterans, serving personnel and students. The 10-day Battlefields Uncovered Summer School will run from June 24th to July 2nd 2020 and will be held in the historic university town of Middelburg in the southern Netherlands. If you have always been interested in battlefield archaeology, this is a unique opportunity to get some hands-on experience and kick start your education and career prospects in the field. No formal education or training in conflict archaeology is necessary – only an interest in the subject, and a desire to learn more.

A group of summer school participants on a field trip, standing in front of a war memorial on the coast
Summer School participants on one of several outings.

Chief Executive of Waterloo Uncovered Mark Evans knows just how important opportunities like the Battlefields Uncovered Summer School can be for those trying to move forward with their lives after military service:

“The opportunities Waterloo Uncovered offers can be life-changing. Veterans can follow up their fascination with history to gain new skills and the confidence to go on to further study. Participants on the course and the dig can work to gain ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) Universal Learning credits that can count towards academic courses. For some people, that can open up a whole new direction to their lives”.

If you’ve been following our work at Waterloo Uncovered with interest, this is your chance to get directly involved – next year’s Summer School students will be examining our most recent finds from Waterloo, and will visit the site of the battle, as well as several other Napoleonic battlefields in the area. For those looking for a broader understanding of military history and battlefield archaeology, this interdisciplinary course goes far beyond Waterloo, and will examine a diverse range of sites and historical periods from antiquity to the 20th century.  The Summer School will cover a wide range of exciting archaeological techniques including geophysical survey, ballistic analysis, augmented reality and digital mapping alongside the more traditional techniques of excavation and finds analysis. To round off a fascinating programme of lectures, the course will touch on the interplay of conflict archaeology, identity, memory and the heritage industry.

Summer School participants holding a discussion in front of lecture slides during a seminar
Summer School participants during a seminar.

For our past participants, the Summer School has been hugely important for building confidence, developing skills and opening up new pathways for future work and study with the support of the Waterloo Uncovered team.

One former student had this to say:

“I believe that all participants, no matter their backgrounds, have really become one group. The atmosphere was great, and I think I made friends for a lifetime. The goodbyes on Saturday morning were a lot harder than I expected them to be”.

To apply, or for more information, please visit

Or contact the team at:

TAG Conference: Archaeology and Wellbeing

Members of the team including CEO Mark Evans and Archaeologist Cornelius Barton speak at Waterloo Uncovered's panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference
Waterloo Uncovered’s panel at TAG

Waterloo Uncovered hosted a session  at the 41st annual Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference (TAG ) at University College London in December. Titled “Archaeology and Wellbeing – digging into your mind body and soul and what it can mean for your project, class or business”,  WU wanted to bring together a panel of experts who could shed light on what ‘wellbeing in archaeology’ actually looked like.
Hosted by Tim Schadla-Hall, speakers included WU’s Mark Evans, Lisa Dunthorne (an Occupational Therapist previously DMRC Headley Court), Cornelius Barton (Partner and Commercial Archaeologist, L-P Archaeology), Cecily Cropper (Forensic Archaeologist, Alecto Forensics) and Dr Karina Croucher (Senior Lecturer, University of Bradford). Mark delivered a fascinating lecture on the pioneering wellbeing-focused design of the Waterloo Uncovered project, its many successes and benefits for those who have taken part, and the problems the project has overcome along the way.

Following that, discussion ranged from how you can measure wellbeing,  how engagement wit archaeology can enhance wellbeing, and, at the other end of the scale, the adverse impact that archaeology can have on mental health in some situations -thought-provokingly demonstrated by Cecily, who has previously worked for the UN carrying out forensic archaeology in extreme scenarios.

The real theme of WU’s session, was that archaeology can and does impact on wellbeing. From day to day work, to complex themes about death, archaeology will always have a role to play in how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

In this sense, archaeology can be used as a handrail to wellbeing, though whatever interpretation is deemed necessary. As Cecily Cropper put it:

“Archaeology doesn’t stop – it’s not about the past, it’s about today. It’s the present as much as the past and it will be the future. “

Waterloo Uncovered: Processing the Finds

Finds Officer Hillery Harrison stands in front of a shelf of boxed finds in our finds lab
 Finds specialist Hillery Harrison at work in the L-P Finds Lab

Currently we have over 5000 artefacts in the Waterloo Uncovered archive, stored at L – P : Archaeology’s lab, while we study them and perform scientific analyses. Each artefact will be looked at by a specialist who will be able to identify details such as dating, use-wear, and other important typological details. Artefacts are often crucial to dating the archaeological structures and layers discovered on site. Forthcoming Dig Diaries will provide exciting updates from these specialist reports, as well as our other archival activities.

A close up of a Coldstream Guardsman's button found at Hougoumont farm
A Coldstream Guardsman’s button found at Hougoumont

One of our priorities coming back from the 2019 dig, is the X-Ray of iron finds and coins. Concretion and corrosion can fully obscure the detail and form of artefacts found on the battlefield; X-ray imaging is one way to reveal those details, which can’t be seen with the naked eye.

A table covered in small plastic bags, each of which contain buttons that are awaiting analysis
A selection of buttons from our excavations awaiting analysis

Stay tuned for X-Ray results soon!

A close up of a badly-corroded copper coin with scale
A badly-corroded copper coin: x-ray may provide new insights into details currently obscured