The two-hundred-year-old mystery of the Waterloo skeleton remains

More than 200 years after Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo, the bones of the soldiers killed on that famous battlefield continue to inform Belgian researchers and experts, who use them to peer back to that moment in the history.

“So many bones — it’s really unique!” exclaimed one such historian, Bernard Wilkin, while standing in front of a forensic pathologist’s table with two skulls, three femurs and a hip bone.

He was in an autopsy room at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Liege, eastern Belgium, where tests are being carried out on the skeletal remains to determine the regions of origin of the four soldiers.

That is a challenge in itself.

Half a dozen European nationalities were represented in the military ranks at the Battle of Waterloo, located 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Brussels.

That armed conflict on June 18, 1815 put an end to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions to conquer Europe to build a great empire, and around 20,000 soldiers were killed as a result.

Historians have since pieced together the battle, and – with advances in genetics, medicine and scanning – researchers can now piece together pages of the past from the remains buried in the ground.

Some of these remains have been recovered through archaeological excavations, such as one last year that allowed the restoration of a skeleton found not far from a field hospital founded by the British Duke of Wellington.

But the remains that Wilkin examined came in another way.

– ‘Prussians in my attic’ –

The historian, who works for the Belgian government’s historical archives, said he gave a conference late last year and “this middle-aged man came to see me afterwards and said to me, ‘Mr. Wilkin, I have some Prussians in my attic. ‘”.

Wilkin said with a laugh, the man said “he showed me photos on his phone and told me that someone gave him these bones so he can put them on display… which he refused to do on ethical grounds” .

The remains remained hidden until the man met Wilkin, who he believed could analyze them and give them a good resting place.

The main object of interest in the collection is the right foot with almost all of its toes — one of a “Prussian soldier” according to the middle-aged man.

“It is very rare to see a well-preserved leg, because the small bones at the ends usually disappear into the ground,” said Mathilde Daumas, an anthropologist at Universite Libre de Bruxelles who is part of the research work.

Regarding the so-called “Prussian” base, the experts are cautious.

The place where it was found was the village of Plancenoit, where troops on the Prussian and Napoleonic sides fought fiercely, Wilkin said, pointing out that it could be the remains of French soldiers.

Fragments of boots and metal buckles found among the remains show uniforms worn by soldiers from the German side against the French.

But “we know that soldiers removed the dead from their own gear,” the historian said.

Clothing and accessories are not reliable indicators of the nationality of the skeletons found on the Waterloo battlefield, he stressed.

– DNA test –

More reliable, these days, are DNA tests.

Dr Philippe Boxho, a forensic pathologist who worked on the remains, said there were still parts of the bones that should yield DNA results, and he believed another two months of analysis should have answers.

“As long as the material is dry we can do something. Our biggest enemy is moisture, which makes everything disappear,” he explained.

The teeth in particular, with traces of strontium, a naturally occurring chemical element that accumulates in human bones, can indicate specific regions through their geology, he said.

Wilkin said it would be a “great case” for the research to find that the remains of the “three to five” soldiers examined came from the French and German sides.


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