A Battle is Like a Ball – Archaeology and Waterloo
It is only relatively recently that archaeology – which simply put is the study of the human past through the analysis of its physical remains – has come to be applied to battlefields. Before then they were exclusively the territory of the military historian, who relied on various written sources, no matter how unreliable they might be, to work out what happened.
It was Wellington himself who commented in relation to Waterloo: “A battle is very much like a ball (dance)”. What he was saying was that everyone in a battle would have a unique experience of it and remember it differently; for one thing, most soldiers would have very little idea what was happening even just a few feet away from them.
Over the past twenty or so years however, the use of various archaeological techniques has demonstrated that even though pre-twentieth century battles lasted only for a short time, Waterloo being fought over the course of a day, they leave tell-tale traces in the ground.
And it is these traces, rather than words in books, from which archaeologists, a bit like detectives on a crime scene, draw most of their information. Unlike words however, the objects themselves are perhaps more reliable witnesses than the writers of the words, as they are not biased or inhibited by a fading memory. This is not to say that history is bunk, just that it can most definitely be improved upon.
Most of these traces take the form of the many metal objects discharged or dropped during a battle. At Waterloo the vast majority of these artefacts are likely to be musket balls, which over the course of the day were fired in their many hundreds of thousands. However, in the days before the introduction of trench warfare in the mid-nineteenth century, battles did not leave much in the way of physical traces on the landscape, aside that is from the graves dug for the dead in the days following.
At Waterloo though, this was not the case as rather than being fought over open fields alone, the battle also took in buildings, including the chateau complex at Hougoumont, the farm at La Haye Sainte and the village of Plancenoit, all of which served as strong-points in advance of the main Allied line on top of the ridge.