Rare bones of men and horses found at Waterloo

The latest discoveries – including parts of at least three horses, one of which looks nearly complete, and the skull and arm of a soldier – are incredibly rare finds.

Human bones and the remains of at least three horses have been discovered at Waterloo, representing a rare find for a Napoleonic battlefield.

The discovery was recently announced by the archaeological charity Waterloo Uncovered, which has returned to the battlefield site in Belgium for its first excavations there since 2019.

In July 2022, its team of archaeologists, students, and combat veterans unearthed some fascinating discoveries, largely around the Mont-Saint-Jean farm complex.

TOP Human remains discovered at the Mont-Saint-Jean farm complex. Team members, including military veterans [above], excavated the site at Waterloo this summer.
Human remains discovered at the Mont-Saint-Jean farm complex. Image: Waterloo Uncovered/chrisvanhouts.

The farm was the site of the Duke of Wellington’s main field hospital during the battle of 18 June 1815. Wellington, allied with the Prussian army of Field Marshal von Blücher, defeated French forces under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor abdicated shortly after and spent the remainder of his life in enforced exile.

It was at the Mont-Saint-Jean farm in 2019 – in the last season of research before the pandemic curtailed the project’s work – that the remains of three amputated limbs were excavated.

Further analysis revealed one of the limbs had a French musket ball still lodged within it, providing a gruesome insight into the savagery of the battle that led to Napoleon’s downfall.

The latest discoveries – including parts of at least three horses, one of which looks nearly complete, and the skull and arm of a soldier – are incredibly rare finds.

‘I’ve been a battlefield archaeologist for 20 years and have never seen anything like it,’ said Glasgow University’s Professor Tony Pollard, the project’s Archaeological Director. ‘We won’t get any closer to the harsh reality of Waterloo than this.’

Team members, including military veterans, excavated the site at Waterloo this summer. Image: Waterloo Uncovered/chrisvanhouts.

Another of the project’s partners, Véronique Moulaert from Agence Wallonne du Patrimoine (AWaP), explained the significance of the discovery. ‘Finding a skeleton in the same trench as ammunition boxes and amputated limbs shows the state of emergency the field hospital would have been in during the battle,’ she said.

‘Dead soldiers, horses, amputated limbs, and more would have had to be swept into nearby ditches and quickly buried in a desperate attempt to contain the spread of disease around the hospital,’ she added.

This year has also seen new excavations at the nearby village of Plancenoit, which was behind Napoleon’s front line. Metal detector surveys here have provided evidence, such as musket balls, of heavy fighting between French and Prussian troops in the later part of the day.

The Prussian arrival was vital in securing the defeat of the French troops, who wrestled for control of the village several times throughout the fateful afternoon.

Waterloo Uncovered was founded in 2015 by Coldstream Guardsmen and UCL archaeology graduates Mark Evans and Charlie Foinette, after Evans was discharged from the army and struggled with PTSD. The project involves veterans and serving military personnel (VSMPs) who have been injured or are suffering from mental health issues as a result of their service.

It aims to take a new cohort of veterans to Belgium for two weeks each year, to excavate sites in and around Waterloo. This year, 20 VSMPs have taken part in the project: eleven from the UK, five from the Netherlands, three from Germany, and one from Belgium.

Many of its participants have gone on to enrol in archaeology degree courses as a result of their experiences, with one veteran now working full time as a professional archaeologist.

Previous finds by the project include musket balls in the orchard of Mont- Saint-Jean farmhouse, the footprints of a building at Hougoumont Farm that was destroyed in the battle, and evidence of the vital role played by the Scots Guards in preventing Hougoumont from falling into French hands.

To find out more about the Waterloo Uncovered project and its discoveries, please visit waterloouncovered.com.