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Were the bones of soldiers that died at the Battle of Waterloo sold as fertiliser? Probably, archaeologists say. © JAN WILLEM PIENEMAN LA BATAILLE DE WATERLOO (1824, RIJKSMUSEUM, AMSTERDAM) DE JAN WILLEM PIENEMAN (1779-1853)
© JAN WILLEM PIENEMAN LA BATAILLE DE WATERLOO (1824, RIJKSMUSEUM, AMSTERDAM) DE JAN WILLEM PIENEMAN (1779-1853)

Were the bones of soldiers that died at the Battle of Waterloo sold as fertiliser? Probably, archaeologists say.

Published: 18th June, 2022 at 00:01
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Very few human remains have been found at the site of the conflict despite thousands of soldiers being killed.

Exactly 207 years on from the 19th Century battle that saw the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, researchers from the University of Glasgow have published a study suggesting that the bones of the fallen soldiers were later sold for use as fertiliser.

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The researchers came to the grisly conclusion after poring over a batch of newly discovered drawings and written descriptions of the battlefield made shortly after Napoleon’s defeat.

In total, these accounts describe the precise locations of three mass graves containing up to 13,000 corpses. However, there is no reliable record of a mass grave ever being found at the site, says lead researcher Prof Tony Pollard.

In fact, only a few remains from the battle have so far been discovered. These include a skeleton found during the building of a museum at the site in 2015 and amputated leg bones found during the excavation of the field hospital in 2019.

As several newspaper articles from the same period mention the gruesome practice of looting human bones from European battlefields to turn into fertiliser, Pollard suspects this may well have happened at Waterloo.

“European battlefields may have provided a convenient source of bone that could be ground down into bone-meal, an effective form of fertiliser. One of the main markets for this raw material was the British Isles,” said Pollard.

“Waterloo attracted visitors almost as soon as the gun smoke cleared. Many came to steal the belongings of the dead, some even stole teeth to make into dentures, while others came to simply observe what had happened.

“It’s likely that an agent of a purveyor of bones would arrive at the battlefield with high expectations of securing their prize.

“Primary targets would be mass graves, as they would have enough bodies in them to merit the effort of digging the bones.”

Pollard now plans to lead an unprecedented geological survey of the area that is likely to last for the next several years.

“The next stage is to head back out to Waterloo, to attempt to plot grave sites resulting from the analysis of early visitor accounts reported here,” he said.

“If human remains have been removed on the scale proposed then there should be, at least in some cases, archaeological evidence of the pits from which they were taken, however truncated and poorly defined these might be.”

Read more about archaeology:

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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