Dig Diary 7: Blazing Heat and Mystery Button

We’re getting a much clearer sense of the physical features of the battle landscape. In today’s dig diary we’re going to look at work on the wall, the search for a hedge, and more news from the North Gate.

Work continues in the Killing Zone, where we are filling in the gaps from previous excavations

Blazing Heat

Working in the summer heat has not been easy, but it has been rewarding. We are continuing the excavations of the demolished barn at the Northern Gate. Between the rubble of the building and the broken slates, we are discovering more and more evidence of incredibly high temperatures from when the buildings burned down during the battle. The outlines of the original barn are becoming ever clearer as well, as we are discovering its original walls.

Some of the burn marks in Phil’s trench

According to archaeologist and team member Phil Harding, when the barn was set on fire by French artillery, it likely reached temperatures of up to 200°C. Some building materials have been so heavily affected by the heat that they were glazed over. Additionally, pieces of flint that were found were crazed in the fire (shattered). Also remarkable is that the sediment in the trenches seems to have been unaffected. The roof would have collapsed and was left there, whereas the floor might have been recycled. Phil adds: “It must have felt like an inferno in here! It’s hard to imagine the fate of wounded soldiers who may have crawled intp the barn to seek shelter”.

We are digging an extra m^2 around the barn’s walls, to confirm whether we might have found a turning point in the wall. Some of the trenches are deep -over 70 cm. They show that the walls discovered in two of the trenches might join up.

Extending the trenches

 

Over the Hedge

Between the Garden Wall and the ploughed fields, we have dug remarkably deep trenches. They go down for about 2 meters. These are intended to investigate the site of a thick hedge. The significance of the hedge is that here, as history tells us, the French tried to storm Hougoumont by attempting to climb the Garden Wall. Before they could attack the walls, they had to force gaps in the thick hedge -a significant obstacle to the French troops, all the time under heavy fire from the walls. At the time of the Battle, the hedge stood tall and thick to prevent the cows from escaping. This meant that, most likely, the French and the English could not see each other. Once the French managed to cut their way through, they must have been vulnerable targets. Despite this, we have evidence that some of them did manage to get over the wall into the garden.

One of the trenches looking for traces of the hedge

To locate the gaps in the hedges, we’ve been using a map from 1816

Since there are no organic traces of the hedges left, we will base our estimations of where the gaps might have been on the location and concentration of musket balls. Archaeologist and team member Stuart Eve feels that this trench “also shows the human side of the battle: imagine what it must have been like to not be able to see your enemy and seeing your friends being shot down around you – very frightening”.

 

White Wide Wall

One of Tuesday’s interesting discoveries was that the original wall held bricks made of chalk. We have now fully uncovered the original foundations of the wall which have not been seen for at least two centuries! You can now clearly see that the mortar has begun to erode. When left uncovered, the construction is likely to hold for at least another century.

The chalky residue of the wall

The Mystery of the Officer’s Button

We have kept this discovery from you for a little while, but we are very happy to finally present it! What you see in the picture is a hand‐cast copper button. It likely belonged to an officer, as it is not flat‐stamped but concaved. Depicted on it is the number 2, surrounded by a curving horn. The button was found in the former Kitchen Garden, where the current Car Park trenches lie.

The button

Our first interpretation of this intriguing find was that it belonged to a French Light Infantryman (the hunting horn was often used as a badge by Light Infantry in many armies).  Number 2 signifies the unit -so we made the deduction that it belonged to the Second Light Infantry Regiment in Napoleon’s army. But now the odd thing: the French regiment to which it might have belonged is not recorded to have been involved in the battle at Château d’Hougoumont! Did an officer come by and drop it? Did the French infantry regiment actually join the battle but it wasn’t recorded in reports? Or -most interestingly‐could it, in fact, have belonged to the German Nassau troops who were also fighting to hold Hougoumont? They are known to have worn French‐style uniforms and buttons. If so, this would be evidence of the presence of the Allied soldiers who first came into contact with the French at the very start of the battle, as they skirmished with each other through the trees leading up to the South Gate and wall. Hopefully, the mystery will be solved later this year by one of our experts.