Scientists are now analyzing human remains in an effort to learn more about the identity of those who died.
The battle took place near the village of Waterloo, south of Brussels, on June 18, 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated here by the combined 68,000-strong allied army of the Duke of Wellington, assisted by 45,000 Prussians under the command of Gebhard von Blücher.
While over 10,000 men are believed to have died during the battle, only two bodies were ever discovered.
Historians recently revealed that many of those who fell at Waterloo were later excavated by farmers, who sold their remains to the sugar industry for use in the industrial process.
Last November, Bernard Wilkin, a senior researcher at the Belgian State Archives, was in Waterloo giving a lecture on the process—in which bones are used as a kind of coal in refining sugar—when something startling happened.
After the talk, he told CNN, “This old man came up to me and said, ‘Dr. Wilkin, I have those Prussians’ bones in the attic.”
The man, who asked not to be identified, showed Welkin photos of the bones and invited him to his home near the field of battle at Blanquinet, where Napoleon’s forces faced off against the Prussians.
A few days later, Wilkin visits the man at his home and comes face to face with the man’s remains from the 1980s. He explained that he was running a “little private museum” at the time, and a friend who had found it several years earlier gave it to him to display.
Despite being a collector of Napoleon memorabilia, the man tells Welkin that he cannot “ethically” bring himself to display the remains, so he stores them away in his attic.
“He suddenly decided he was old and could die in the coming years and was afraid of what would happen to the bones,” Wilkin said of the man living alone. When he saw the paper we released last summer, he thought, “This guy knows about bones and the Napoleonic wars and he works for the government.” “.
Wilkin said he felt “a mixture of surprise and emotion” when he saw the remains.
“One of the skulls had been badly damaged by the sword or spear, so it was a very brutal way to die,” he said.
Preliminary tests revealed that the remains of at least four soldiers. Items found near the bones, including skin and bone buttons, as well as the location where they were discovered, indicate that some of the dead were Prussian soldiers.
Wilkin said, “At the end of the day he gave me all the boxes to study. One of his requests of me was to give them a dignified burial.”
That’s certainly the plan, but for now the remains are undergoing extensive forensic testing in Liège, where Welkin is based. Scientists hope to extract DNA in an effort to identify the dead. They also hope to perform facial reconstructions of at least one of the skulls.
Rob Schaeffer, a German military historian, works with Welkin in an attempt to learn more about the soldiers, while also reaching out to the German War Graves Commission.
He told CNN: “What struck me most was the fact that if you look at the art from the 19th century, where the conflict is depicted, it’s all very interesting and abstract. As a casual observer you might get the impression it wasn’t that bad, but this particular skull who had a huge facial shock depicting for the first time just how violent a lifetime actually was.”
Schafer told CNN that there is a 20%-30% chance that DNA will be extracted from the remains.
“It’s a long shot but if we succeed, the next goal is to upload DNA to databases so that people can apply if they are found to be related,” he said.
After encountering Bones in the attic, another surprise was in store for Wilkin.
“When I was visiting,” he said, “the man said to me ‘By the way, I have another friend who may have had four British soldiers that he discovered while he was doing metal detecting near Tal al-Assad (on the battlefield)'”.
“I was surprised, this really got crazy.”
These bones were later examined by Dominique Bosquet, an archaeologist from the Walloon Heritage Agency, Wilkin told CNN. They have since been moved to Brussels, where Bosquet and a team from the Museum of Natural History and the University of Brussels are studying them.
The discoveries led Wilkin and his colleagues to suspect that more people living near the battlefield might have skeletons in their closets.
“It is absolutely clear that we need to talk to the people who have lived there for generations,” he said, adding: “We are absolutely confident that more bones should be returned to the Belgian authorities.”