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Mystery of Waterloo's dead

Probing the fate of those who died at Waterloo in June 1815.

Did those who died at the Battle of Waterloo become fertiliser? This macabre possibility has hit the deadlines, as the charity ‘Waterloo Uncovered’ plans an ambitious geophysical survey in search of mass graves.

Thousands perished in the battle, but very few human remains have ever been recovered, despite contemporary accounts of dead and dying soldiers. Original historical data abound – in the form of letters, battlefield descriptions and drawings from a few days after the conflict. For instance, a Scottish merchant named James Ker, who lived in Brussels, described men dying in his arms.

As Waterloo expert Prof. Tony Pollard points out, it’s clear from the accounts that the dead were disposed of at numerous locations across the battlefield, including in large pits. We also know that numerous visitors came to the battlefield, some as mere observers, others to steal the belongings of the dead, or even to filch teeth to make dentures. Then there were the bone purveyors, who ground down the bones of the dead to make bone-meal fertiliser, much prized, especially in Britain, at the time.

Mass graves would have been an obvious target for fertiliser processors, for there would have been less effort to acquire bodies. Local people would have known the locations of the graves and even helped with the digging. This seems to have been what happened; the challenge is to prove it. Hopefully, the proposed geophysical survey and other archaeological methods will yield traces of long-forgotten burial pits.

Want more in-depth archaeology? Read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler II, June 1815.

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