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Friday, 31 July 2015

Waterloo Uncovered through rose-tinted spectacles

I returned to the UK by car on Wednesday after two and a half days excavating with the Waterloo Uncovered team at Hougoumont Farm.  Coming out of Dover through Operation Stack was the most tortuous part of the entire journey.  But overall, what a fantastic trip!

Having collected a bag of camera equipment (which a friend of the excavation was loaning) from somewhere in deepest Hampshire, I proceeded to Andover on Sunday afternoon to collect the great Phil Harding. Phil is the President of the Defence Archaeology Group and decided to spend a week on a ‘busman’s holiday’ excavating at Hougoumont Farm. 

Having collected Phil, we proceeded to Dover.  As my famous cargo leant out of the car window at passport control he was recognised – “I know who you are…” – and we were waved through with only a cursory glance at our proffered passports.  The Eurotunnel ‘station’ at Dover is a pretty bleak place with only fast food and Starbucks for company.  We waited over a coffee until boarding the train.

Arriving in France was fantastic, the sun shone and the signs to the motorway and Dunkirk were so clear and easy to follow.  With so many British cars around us on the motorway, it almost felt like home.  

At Dunkirk we turned right towards Hazebrouk and Lille, then on past Mons towards Nivelles, where our hotel was waiting.

As night fell and the rain came down, we approached Nivelles.  At this point the satnav decided that it was tired and as we passed the junction for Nivelles Sud it switched off completely.  Phil and I decided to come off the motorway at the next junction and take a view of the situation at that point.  Quietly I was beginning to worry as it was dark, I’d been travelling for 10 hours, the rain was getting heavier, I had promised to deliver my famous cargo safely to the hotel……but I calmly turned around at the next junction, re-joined the motorway going in the opposite direction and headed back to the junction at Nivelles Sud.

Exiting at Nivelles Sud, we were totally lost.  Having negotiated a couple of roundabouts correctly, I really thought we’d better just stop in a layby and call the hotel for help.  As I pulled into the nearest layby, Phil said, “…isn’t that the hotel over there?”  And it was!  We had stopped in the driveway of the hotel!  How lucky was that?  “…somebody up there was keeping an eye on us…!” said my safely delivered famous cargo!

Peter Gin (Waterloo Uncovered media co-ordinator), Cornelius Barton (L-P Archaeology) and Mark Evans (Waterloo Uncovered excavation co-ordinator) were literally waiting at reception with beers in-hand for us!  My first taste of Leffe Bruin!  What a welcome.

The beer and “bonhomie” flowed into the early hours!  At one point, I even managed to persuade one slightly tipsy archaeologist that I was Phil’s driver and that we had travelled from Calais in the “Roller” and that my job was to make sure that the very temperamental TV star was treated like the celebrity he is!

Mini-busses from the hotel at 8am!

With the one hour time difference and the over-hanging “bonhomie” of the previous evening breakfast the following morning was a slightly awkward affair.  On arrival at the buffet, all I noticed were the bread rolls and platters of cold meat and cheese – so I duly filled my plate and sat down…….only to notice that most of those wearing the Waterloo Uncovered tee shirts were tucking into bacon, sausage and scrambled egg!!  Not a mistake I planned to make the following morning!

Anyway, arrival at the Hougoumont farmhouse was as exciting as I had hoped!  It looks just like it does in the pictures!  There are the gates which were closed so famously during the battle!  There is the chapel – all that remains of the chateau!  There is the wall where so many died defending and attacking!  There are the trees with evidence of musket shot impacts!  WOW!  Me, here with army veterans and injured Grenadier Guards and Rifles to excavate at this historic site!  Of course, I was nervous – 20 years since I last scraped a trowel through the earth!  Even back then, I wasn’t sure I was any good!

Tony Pollard – Excavation Director and Battlefield archaeologist extraordinaire – assigned me to Phil’s team and set us the task of investigating an area reputed to be where the hollow-way met the pond near to those famous gates.  Poor Phil, his team consisted of two veterans, a Belgian former archaeologist and me!  What hope for a successful day!

As Phil explained the plan, my memories of how to do this gradually returned.  Set out the trench with string, use 3-4-5 triangles to get the corners square, remove the turf…….
Wanting to make a quick impact and to show that selling insurance isn’t my only skill, I volunteered to remove the turf (as I had done this a few weeks ago in my garden in preparation for a new patio!).  To shouts of “come on John, you can lift bigger turfs than that can’t you?” and “..don’t forget to put grass to grass and soil to soil…” we cleaned off the top surface of our 5m by 1m trench.  Through sweat, aching muscles, blistered hands…..nothing was going to let me show Phil or anyone else just how hard this was for an over-weight, unfit insurance salesman!

What was really great though was remembering, through renewed experience, the camaraderie of the trench.  Phil is a great teacher – very relaxed, but still unwilling to take any prisoners.  He chatted, we laughed, we took short breaks to lean on spades, the black humour of the army was flowing and the work was getting done.

At this point, just when things should have started to look interesting, I was asked to move to another part of the site to do another job.  Metal detectors are being used by Waterloo Uncovered as a routine part of the investigation.  The site is so large and excavation opportunities so few, this represents a great way to identify scatters of metal objects – namely musket balls!  My new job was to excavate individual metal finds previously located by metal detector and now identified by flags in the ground. 

Excavating musket balls!  How lucky was I?  It doesn’t get any better than this!  Excavating the actual musket balls which had been fired during the battle at Hougoumont Farm.  Me! 

Following the lines of flags inside the south wall of the garden – where the British soldiers had stood on a wooden platform in order to shoot over the wall.  There were musket balls, mostly flattened on impact, but some still round.  It is likely that the round ones had been dropped accidentally during re-loading. 

Can you imagine the stress of re-loading a musket while under attack?  Fumbling and dropping the odd piece of shot wouldn’t have been uncommon.  As for the flattened ones – fired towards the wall from the inside?  Testing guns in preparation for the battle?  Fired at French soldiers who got over the wall?  We just don’t know.  Certainly one of the musket balls which I excavated was smaller than most – and likely to be French.  It wasn’t flattened, but was mis-shapen and scarred.  Clearly it had hit something ….. or someone ….on its way from outside the wall into the garden. 

Joining me in this task was a very personable and good-humoured ex-soldier who had just taken his legs off to make digging with a trowel easier when Tony Pollard came over and said that his services were required elsewhere.  Back on went the legs and off he went.
Shortly after this, I too was moved to work on uncovering a potential track-way to the south outside of the garden wall and then to work in another trench back into the garden where a possible ‘garden feature’ had been identified by James.  Scraping, digging, mattkocking thick wet clay – that is real archaeology.  I ended the day totally exhausted, but ready for some Leff Bruin and steak!

After an early night it wasn’t such a struggle getting ready for the 8am departure.  Buoyed-up on bacon, sausage and scrambled egg – even toast and marmalade (I’ve NEVER come across marmalade anywhere outside the UK before!) – James and I ‘bashed away’ at the trench with the disappearing garden feature……..and eventually we had to admit defeat and abandon our beautifully crafted and hard-fought box sections.  The ‘garden feature’ was a trick of the light….. James really wasn’t happy, but we had spent an enjoyable few hours chatting, laughing putting the world to rights…..even though, he considers my move from archaeology to insurance a complete sell-out!!

With the abandonment of that job, I was assigned to the team cleaning the track-way which I had helped to uncover the previous day.  This was a fairly delicate task undertaken with Lewis – I believe a serving Grenadier Guard.  Lewis was quiet and unassuming…..until he put on the back-pack water sprayer - when he took on the persona of Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters!  (Prior to photographing the track-way, Lewis sprayed it with water in order to high-light the contrast in colour between the soil and the stony rubble).  A more natural ghost buster I have never met!

My final task of the day was to empty buckets of ‘loose’ being dug out of another trench further to the south – where Waterloo Uncovered’s Major Charlie Foinette was excavating with a team.  At the time, it was believed that they were uncovering a steam-bed which ran along the south of the farm.

This brought an end to another tiring day – and one which saw my friend and business partner Chris meet me for another steak dinner in Nivelles.  Some Leff Bruim and red wine later, I turned in for my last night at Nivelles Sud.

Having packed my bag (badly) the night before I had breakfast and checked-out of the hotel and rather than travelling in the minibus, Chris and travelled to Hougoumont in my car so that we could leave at lunchtime for the long trip back to the UK.  I was also keen to squeeze every last second of excavation time out my trip!

Luckily, I was assigned to Phil’s team again.  The trench which I had started on Monday was now about 10m long and over 1m dep.  It seems that all of that depth was taken up with modern back-fill probably relating to the construction of the nearby motorway!  How frustrating is that!  Dumping tons of rubble and soil on top of an historic site…… did that happen and why wasn’t it recorded anywhere?

Still, Phil was good-humoured as usual and set me the task of digging a deeper box-section to further define the stratigraphy and find out where the back-fill ended.  With a veteran called Martin (‘Jonsey’) I set out my strings and began the task of removing soil in 3cm layers.  I like to think that Phil wasn’t unimpressed by my efforts as he did at one point suggest that Martin should follow my example….though that might only have been in relation to my tea making skills….!

(I believe that since my departure the remains of the actual ‘hollow-way’ were identified in this area by James – at least 1m deeper than had been expected.  Well done James!)

Sadly, my time was up!  I said my goodbyes and expressed my thanks and promised to meet everyone again sometime

Chris and I re-traced my route to Dunkirk where we boarded a ferry to Dover.  Incidentally, the Dunkirk ferry terminal is even more unpleasant than Dover’s tunnel terminal – which I wouldn’t have believed possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!

What did I learn?
Archaeology is a great leveller.  It brings people together and no task is too small or menial for even the most ‘up-themselves’ site director or army officer.  [..and by the way, the 'up-themselves' comment certainly did NOT apply to those leading Waterloo Uncovered!]
Trowelling is harder work than I remember!
Some human beings are amazingly resilient.
Fighting in the battle of Waterloo must have been truly horrific – Bernard Cornwell’s book just begins to scrape the surface!
Archaeologists are people who are slightly different from everyone else – in a very very good way!

So, please look up the news and results section of, follow them on Twitter and make friends with their facebook!

Thanks to the following for allowing me (a mere insurance broker) to take part:
Diarmaid Walshe
Mark Evans
Peter Ginn
Tony Pollard
Phil Harding
Dominique Bosquet
Alasdair White
Cornelius Barton
Chris Varley

And thanks everyone else for putting up with me!

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