We arrive late Friday evening, the only two UCR students that will participate this year. Usually more are allowed to join, more veterans, more scholars; but this year the project has been scaled back to focus their support on veterans, the main beneficiaries of Waterloo Uncovered. This charity is unique, because it changes lives – not on some high, abstract level, but for real and within only two weeks. That’s what they told us before we arrived in Nivelles, a small town near Waterloo in Belgium, and that’s what we will get to witness over the next two weeks.
The welcome is warm, whether people have known each other since their university days, sicne 2015 (when the charity started) or for only five minutes – the comradeship, which is the centre of this project, is immediately there. We will all life together in the same hotel, and that’s where we meet everyone for the first time, too. On the terrace of the hotel, over a glass of beer, we shake hands and exchange names, and just like that the conversations bubble up around us. As students, we’re the youngest there, and at first we merely listen to the stories that are being exchanged, but soon, questions are asked and the jokes start. I quickly realise that no topic is off-limits, no jokes taboo. I ask someone about the group dynamic and he simply says – ‘earn their respect and they’ll trust you.” – that’s how simple it is.
This evening dictates the coming two weeks. Quickly we realise that it does not matter where you come from, what you’ve experienced; we’re all here to work together towards the same goal; as long as you do your bit, you are part of the team. This is the agenda we live by, whether we excavate in the summer heat during the day, play in the pool in the afternoon, or eat dinner together in the evening before migrating to the bar to exchange stories and jokes. Whether veteran, professor, or 19-year-old student – comradeship quickly transforms into friendship as we get to know each other better.
That is what makes this project so special – its ability to bring people together and create unique connections between them. People who would normally never meet become friends and the possibility to learn not only from each other but with each other opens miraculously. Soon you notice how the stories that are being told in the evening become more personal and step closer to actual lived experiences – more than a few tears are shed as proof of that. There, in a bar in a hotel in the middle of Belgium, we hear stories that will forever stay with us and touch our hearts, stories that before were unspoken, that this unique environment can give space to.
While friendship and camaraderie is growing, the archaeology is what brings us together. For the students, who are maybe looking to find the start of a career here, it’s a unique chance to learn from the best in the field – but the enthusiasm soon takes over the whole group. Everyone here has a fascination with history that they have brought with them to the dig, and after the first tour of the battlefield by Professor Tony Pollard, and the discovery of the first finds in the excavation trenches under the supervision of our amazing archeologists, everyone joins in enthusiastic discussion about what our finds might mean, eager to contribute any information and ideas they have. There is a chapel buried here somewhere, that much we know, although the details are uncertain: that’s why we’re here. Together we dig, from 8am to 4pm we’re outside in fresh air, the hard labour forging an even stronger connection between the team, with everyone contributing their individual skills and knowledge to the common effort. Despite the heat, the morale remains high, jokes flying through the air, the chapel slowly revealing itself.
It’s an interesting mix – the archeology, the military, the journalists that follows us throughout the press day, the afternoon swims, and loud concerts in the mini vans that take us to the site and back every day (sorry for those who had to witness that!). With all this, something beautiful is created within just a few day, a level of trust and friendship that would usually take months, if not years, to develop. A wild and diverse mix of people that suddenly live together, work together, eat together, share experiences and stories – that is the true magic of Waterloo Uncovered. With the help of archaeology and a love for history, a common goal of uncovering the story of Waterloo further, a community is created that does not look at who you are or where you are from, but simply how you are doing in this exact moment and how to support each other in the best way possible. It creates a space to merely exist, breathe, listen, or share the stories that will not only find listeners but people who truly understand without judgement or hesitation; because they have had the same experiences, wherever they served or not: the experience will fundamentally be the same and here is a space in which they are heard and appreciated.
The people you will meet at Waterloo Uncovered will change your life permanently – with their knowledge, their experiences, their wisdom. For veterans that participate in this project, Waterloo Uncovered is often the first time they have the space and comfort to share the experiences they made during service without meeting any judgment or criticism and with no fear of being misunderstood. For students, the project is a unique experience to learn from those who have lived through and seen unimaginable things, which are suddenly made real when you hear them from the people you have grown to respect and love in just a few days. For everyone involved, the project is not only an opportunity to rewrite the course of history through archaeology and gain first-hand experience in the field, but to rewrite our own perspective on the world and the people we share it with. Prejudice and bias of any kind don’t have a place at Waterloo – only openness, respect, and being human. That is then, fundamentally, what we learn from projects like this – whatever we experience, whenever we experience it (now or 200 years ago), we are all merely humans. As long as we listen to each other and respect each other, all differences disappear and imagined barriers break down, in an effort to actually change something in the world and give support to our fellow men and women who need it.