Bones of fallen soldiers from the 1815 Battle of Waterloo may have been sold as fertilizer, a new study suggests.
The study, by the University of Glasgow’s Professor Tony Pollard, suggested that this was the most probable outcome, but archaeologists have said that these findings do not mean that the case is closed.
The Battle of Waterloo took place near Brussels on June 18, 1815 and resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat with around 25,000 casualties on the French side and 23,000 for the Allied army (British, Dutch, Belgian and German army units).
Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Conflict Archaeology, the findings demonstrated original data comprising of newly found battlefield descriptions and drawings which were made by people who visited the area in the days and weeks that followed Napoleon’s defeat.
These included personal memoirs and letters from Scottish merchant James Ker who lived in Brussels at the time of the battle, describing that men had died in his arms.
The visitor accounts described the exact locations of three mass graves which contained up to 13,000 bodies. Yet mysteriously, few human remains were found.
“Artistic license and hyperbole over the number of bodies in mass graves notwithstanding, the bodies of the dead were clearly disposed of at numerous locations across the battlefield, so it is somewhat surprising that there is no reliable record of a mass grave ever being encountered,” Pollard, who is also the Director of the Center for Battlefield Archaeology at the Scottish university, said in a statement.
“At least three newspaper articles from the 1820s onwards reference the importing of human bones from European battlefields for the purpose of producing fertilizer,” he added.
Bones are rich in phosphorous and calcium, which is expected to especially be the case when it came to the young army recruits who were found in the battle. Plants can suck the nutrients from these boils through soil to help them grow.
Farmers often grind carcasses from dead cattle, but human skeletons could be just as effective.
“European battlefields may have provided a convenient source of bone that could be ground down into bone-meal, an effective form of fertilizer. One of the main markets for this raw material was the British Isles.”
According to Pollard, Waterloo attracted visitors “almost as soon as the gun smoke cleared,” as many would “steal the belongings of the dead.”
“…Some even stole teeth to make into dentures, while others came to simply observe what had happened,” he explained. “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,” he said.
“Local people would have been able to point these agents to the locations of the mass graves, as many of them would have vivid memories of the burials taking place, or may even have helped with the digging,” he added.
“It is also possible the various guidebooks and travelogues that described the nature and location of the graves could have served essentially as treasure maps complete with an X to mark the spot. On the basis of these accounts, backed up by the well attested importance of bone-meal in the practice of agriculture, the emptying of mass graves at Waterloo in order to obtain bones seems feasible and the likely conclusion is that.”
The study coincided with the 207th anniversary since the 1815 battle.
Pollard said he aimed to get to the bottom of this mystery by heading an “ambitious,” years-long geophysical survey involving veterans who would join the dig to provide insight to archaeologists.
“The next stage is to head back out to Waterloo, to attempt to plot grave sites resulting from the analysis of early visitors accounts reported there,” Pollard 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.”
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