Battlefield archaeology

How are the Waterloo Uncovered team uncovering the archaeology of the battlefield?
14 August 2018

Interview with 

Tony Pollard, Professor of conflict history and archaeology, University of Glasgow; Hilary Harrison, Finds Officer, Waterloo Uncovered


So how are the Waterloo Uncovered teams doing the archaeology? Tony Pollard, from the University of Glasgow, has state of the art equipment which can scan the ground for magnetic anomalies. Georgia Mills heard how it works...

Tony - Basically what these allow us to do is to look for disturbances under the ground. If you dig a hole you will change the local magnetic field. If you light a fire you again, will create magnetic anomalies. If you dig a hole and backfill it with soil which then becomes wet, its resistance relative to the soil around it will be less. So all of these physical properties can be read and measured, and they create a map of disturbance that is invisible on the surface.

The thing is though you still have to do what we call “ground truthing” which is doing some ‘old school’ archaeology - dig a trench and see what the anomaly actually means, and we’re about to do some of that today. We’ve got two large anomalies just beyond the trees there in that field, which is just south of the south gate at Hougoumont and we’re going to see what they actually relate to. They could be any number of things.

Some of the first anomalies we looked at were brick kilns. They gave up high magnetic readings which suggest burning and, indeed, they related to the construction of the bricks, and those bricks were used to build the farm. So now we have the plan of genesis of Hougoumont which is really exciting.

Georgia - And as well as old fashioned digging, they’re also using metal detectors as the musket balls, weaponry, and parts of uniform were often metallic…

Tony - What we are looking for, at least in part, artifacts, objects that were dropped  during the battle. So they may be musket balls that were fired, horseshoes, bits of broken weaponry…

Wow. look at that one, eh!

Georgia - These finds end up in the aptly named Finds Room...

Hilary - I’m Hilary Harrison. I am the Finds Officer for Waterloo Recovered. I have been on every dig that they’ve had here so this now my fifth dig out here. I did two in the first year.

You are in, at the moment, what we call the Finds Room. Everything that comes out of the trenches is brought into here. We then dry it all. We dry clean it,so we don’t wash anything because the majority of what we get is metallic and you never wash metal anyway, so everything is dry brushed.

Georgia - There’s this big white table in front of us full of mysterious items. Are these the finds that have been coming in? Can you tell me a bit about them?

Hilary - These are finds that have been coming in. What we have across here is an awful lot of iron nails, musket balls which have been impacted so they’ve actually been fired.

Georgia - Are those the sort of flatter circles?

Hilary - These are the flattened ones. We have an impacted one here.

Georgia - Wow! So it’s really gone ‘splat’ hasn’t it?

Hilary - Oh, this one’s hit something really solid.  Get some mud out of the back of it… that’s the sounds of me carefully digging around the entire musket ball to get the mud out of the back of it so we can see what it looks like. This has gone splat against something and because of the speed that’s it’s travelling at, and because it is a soft metal, when it goes splat it doesn’t stay flat. If you think of a drop of water hitting something it hits and then comes back a little bit, and because this is solid you then get a hollow in the middle and a hollow round the outside where it’s gone splat and bounced back.

Georgia - So you can really tell the ones that have hit something.

Hilary - This one I think has probably hit a wall because you’ve got little bits of red in it, so you’ve got little bits of brick dust in it. Each musket ball has its own tale to tell.

Now what else have we got here. We’ve got mysteries on here; I mean I’m not sure what that is but it’s a little decorative piece probably off the end of a rod of some sort.

Georgia - Like a flag pole?

Hilary - A flag pole. It could be off any one of a number of things but that’s sort a little decorative thing of some sort. We’ve got some coins here; lots of musket balls; indeterminate pieces of metal. I think that’s a handle. That might well be a button, possibly English, plain, it doesn’t weigh very much. The French ones had bone and wood inside them so they did tend to weigh a little bit more.

Georgia - There’s about a hundred things just on this table so there’s a lot to get through.

Hilary - Oh yes! We will have dealt with over a thousand finds and there’s two of us who have got experience in the room. We’ve got two people who have come in just this week and last week so their learning and working really help. We’ve got Malcolm who’s just come in for today.

Malcolm - Yes.

Hilary - And he’s thoroughly enjoying himself.

Georgia - Yeah?

Malcolm - Yeah. I’m finding lots of things. I mean I’ve picked lots of these things up with the detectors. Now, I’m actually cleaning them and finding out what they are. It’s just an absolutely fantastic feeling to know when the dates are, where they’ve come from, and everything else.

Georgia - But there’s something that conspicuously has not been found. Over 50,000 people died at Waterloo…

Tony - We haven’t come across any graves. We’ve not been deliberately hunting graves but, obviously, with a battle site it’s an issue. And we have various paintings of the time of bodies being buried here at Hougoumont, and one instance here in the car park we investigated the site of one of these paintings. So two years ago we had look here, and we got the machine, and then we broke out the tarmac. But, at the end of along project, we came up with a single finger bone.

Georgia - Tony Pollard. So where are all the bodies?


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