UPDATE: Excavation of the Skeleton Discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean

PLEASE BE AWARE: This article contains images of skeletal human remains that some may find disturbing and content some may find distressing. Reader discretion is advised.

In July 2022, in the orchard at Mont-Saint-Jean farm, Waterloo Uncovered’s team of archaeologists, veterans and serving personnel made a dramatic discovery: a complete human skeleton, only the second ever discovered on the Waterloo battlefield. Excavating human remains is a slow and careful process, and though we dedicated much of our two weeks of excavation to the task, we unfortunately had to leave before our work was complete. Luckily, our Belgian partners have been able to continue where we left off. Read on to find out how excavations have progressed, and what the future of the skeleton may hold…

During our 2019 excavation, we made the shocking discovery of amputated limbs associated with the Duke of Wellington's main field hospital at Mont-Saint-Jean. There was always a possibility that more human remains would be discovered near by - but we had no idea of the significant discovery we were about to make in the very same feature, upon our return to the farm in 2022. Read more about the discovery of the skeleton earlier this month here.

The team working on one of the horses.
The complete skeleton being excavated.

For the two-week duration of Waterloo Uncovered’s excavation, our team carefully exposed the majority of the skeleton – however, the dig drew to a close before work on the skeleton could be completed. Luckily, our partners at AWaP (Agence wallonne du Patrimoine / Wallonia Heritage Agency), have diligently continued working to excavate the skeleton and the surrounding bones, despite the recent heatwave making the ground more difficult to dig. The AWaP team, led by Véronique Moulaert, also includes one of Waterloo Uncovered’s Archaeological Supervisors, Eva Collignon. They have been joined by Air Force veteran Stef ‘Wolf’ Wolput, the first Belgian beneficiary to take part in Waterloo Uncovered’s excavation programme, who is putting the skills learnt over the course of the programme to good use alongside AWaP archaeologists.

Through continued excavation, the team, which also includes Caroline Laforest and Quentin Goffette from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, have gained a clearer picture of what the trench in the orchard of Mont-Saint-Jean contains.

Specialists from Brussels have been working on the skeleton.
Veteran Stef Wolfput has also been excavating with the team.

The fully articulated skeleton appears to be that of a young, probably male individual; possibly a soldier who died during or shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. No evidence of injury has yet been discovered on the bones, and no musket balls were found associated with the skeleton, so this individual’s cause of death remains unclear. Metal detectorists working closely with the archaeological team have thoroughly investigated the site of the bones, however no objects or signals were detected in the area of the skeleton, and nothing that could give us a clue to this individual’s identity or cause of death was discovered.

In addition to a complete skeleton, two legs have been uncovered, likely amputated in the field hospital during the battle, in a desperate attempt to save lives.

Further up the trench was an amputated human arm, along with the remains of three articulated horses. Elements of at least one more horse have also been found, although it appears that many of this horse’s bones have been lost to soil erosion.

A horses skull, ready to be removed.
The horse skull wrapped for removal.

After a week of further excavation following Waterloo Uncovered’s departure, the team were able to carefully lift the skeleton from the ground – a difficult task, as the bones were incredibly fragile, likely due to the chemical composition of the soil.

The bones will now be sent to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, where it will likely remain for the next year. Further analysis by specialists will provide a more definitive idea of the age and sex of the skeleton. Researchers also hope to conduct isotope analysis, which may be able to determine where this individual grew up and what the main elements of their diet were.

The team kept working throughout the heatwave.
Animal bones being excavated.
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