Archaeologists working at the Belgian site where the Battle of Waterloo took place made a gruesome discovery recently that just goes to show how serious wounds of wartime were then. They found a pit full of amputated limbs. But, to temper the grizzly scene, they also found another slice of history that was previously unknown – a new battle site not previously excavated.
Both discoveries were made at the site of Mont-Saint-Jean, an allied field hospital. The researchers say the findings show how close Napolean was to winning a victory in the 1815 war.
Today, the site of the Mont-Saint-Jean Field Hospital is an orchard, but back then it was a converted farmhouse where around 6,000 wounded allied soldiers and French enemy soldiers were treated. The group that discovered the limbs and artifacts is comprised of archaeologists and veterans, and they’re working with Waterloo Uncovered, a charity that helps vets deal with their PTSD by giving them a new purpose. It was founded by Charles Foinette and Mark Evans, two former officers who themselves have PTSD, a holdover from their tours in Afghanistan.
Waterloo Uncovered keeps a daily dig diary to note their findings. During the recent dig, they uncovered what they believe is an ammunition box. While excavating the box, the archaeologists found the remains of a human leg. After determining that it was not a recent burial, they were able to continue their dig, and they proceeded to find three other leg bones in the span of a few days. This was the first time Waterloo Uncovered has ever recovered human remains. According to their diary:
“The location they were found in appears to be an area where amputated limbs would have been thrown, associated with the field hospital. One limb shows possible evidence of trauma caused by a catastrophic wound, while the most recently discovered limb appears to bear the marks of a surgeon’s amputation saw above the knee.”
At the time, any person with a mangled limb, or other extreme wounds — or an infection of a wound – would almost always have the limb amputated.
This was the only way they had to stop shock or infection from setting in. However, according to the report:
“Surgeons would use bone saws to amputate limbs without anesthetic after cutting flaps of skin away from the wound.”
The condition of one of the amputated limbs offered evidence that it was shattered by a musket ball, an injury that wasn’t uncommon. Often, the injuries that resulted in limb wounds (and specifically amputations) came from musket balls, cannonballs, lances, and sabres.
That the archaeologists even found the limbs is something of a minor miracle. Because human bones contain higher concentrations of minerals than other bones do, bodies and bones were often taken right after death or excavated later, ground up, and used as fertilizer. This explains why very few remains from the period have been found to date, other than a few mass graves.
The evidence of a previously unknown battle included scores of musket balls of English and French origins, in addition to a French cannonball that came from a howitzer. The team had to actually stop excavations when they found it and have a bomb squad safely dispose of it because according to the report:
“The 6-inch French howitzer shell, complete with fuse, still contained gunpowder.”
This previously unknown battle is important because it lends evidence to the fact that the French “penetrated allied lines” after the German units ran out of ammunition.
Waterloo Uncovered intends to continue the excavations, and expand the area they’re digging in the hopes of finding other limbs and artifacts. The limbs they found to date have been turned over to the Belgian authorities, who have sole discretion over what happens to them.
The group will also excavate in the nearby site of Frischermont, which has a few standing walls and a well, although other evidence of the battles is long gone, ground-penetrating radar offers hope it exists underground. They’ll also explore a previously unexcavated well at Hogoumont farm, which was discovered when the buildings there were being restored for the Battle of Waterloo bicentenary in 2015.
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Featured Image via Waterloo Uncovered