The bloody Battle of Waterloo is said to have claimed the lives of thousands of people, but since Napoleon’s defeat little has ever been found in the way of human remains at the site. Where did they go? It’s quite possible they were ground up for fertilizer.
“European battlefields may have provided a convenient source of bone that could be ground down into bone-meal, an effective form of fertilizer,” said Professor Pollard from the University of Glasgow Centre for War Studies and Conflict Archaeology 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.”
According to Pollard, following the battle on June 18, 1815, Waterloo became something of a tourist trap as some came to gawp at the scenes of devastation while others got busy stripping the dead of anything of value. Human teeth were often taken and made into dentures, but the other bones had a different market value.
The authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology say that on the basis of the picture painted by recent archaeological investigations, it seems big graves may have represented a lucrative opportunity for the retrieval of human bones which probably serves as an important source of phosphate fertilizer.
Historic documents including letters, guidebooks, and travelogs detail the exact locations of at least three mass graves said to contain around 13,000 corpses, but Pollard believes tracking them down will yield little in the way of human remains. Those same documents, he says, may have acted like treasure maps for bone grinders who shipped their product to the British Isles.
“It’s likely that an agent of a purveyor of bones would arrive at the battlefield with high expectations of securing their prize,” said Pollard. “Primary targets would be mass graves, as they would have enough bodies in them to merit the effort of digging the bones.”
“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.”
The findings come exactly 207 years after the Battle of Waterloo’s end, but the mystery isn’t settled for certain just yet. Pollard hopes to lead an “ambitious” geophysical survey over the coming years which will employ the help of veterans to try and track down the grave sites and see what they find.
“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.
“Covering large areas of the battlefield over the coming years, we will look to identify areas of previous ground disturbance to test the results of the source review and distribution map, and in conjunction with further documentary research and some excavation will provide a much more definitive picture of the fate of the dead of Waterloo.”