When historian Bernard Wilkin, head of the State Archives in Liège, went to give a lecture in Waterloo a few weeks ago, little did he think about what was going to happen there. At the end of his speech, a middle-aged man approached him and showed him some mysterious photos that he had on his mobile phone. "I have Prussians in the attic," he snapped at her.
What was actually in his attic were the remains of at least 10 men, probably Prussian and English soldiers who participated 200 years ago in the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated on June 18, 1815 by troops of the Seventh Coalition led by by the Duke of Wellington.
"So many bones, it's really unique!" Wilkin exclaimed a few days after the find, as he stood in front of the autopsy table of a forensic pathologist at the Liège Institute of Forensic Medicine that held two skulls, three femurs, bones of the hip or a foot that maintains almost all its parts.
The skeletal remains had been found -along with boots and metal buckles- decades earlier in Plancenoit (Lasne), which served as a strategic point during the armed confrontation since it was the main focus of the attack by the Prussian flank of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher against Napoleon Bonaparte's soldiers.
These forensic tests will make it possible to determine from which regions the men they belong to came from. All of them died in combat, as shown by the wounds on their remains. One of the skulls has the area of the eyeball affected, including a broken bone.
The strontium isotopes of the teeth will serve archaeologists to detail the age of the deceased and their origin. Half a dozen European nationalities were represented among the troops from both sides who clashed in the vicinity of Waterloo, located about 20 kilometers south of Brussels.
The clash, which resulted in the deaths of between 10,000 and 30,000 people and the defeat of the French army, ended Napoleon's ambitions to conquer Europe to build a great empire. The allies also entered France. On July 1, Von Blücher occupied Versailles and restored the Crown. Napoleon finally surrendered on July 10.
The Battle of Waterloo -besides becoming known worldwide for the famous ABBA song- has been thoroughly analyzed by historians, who consider it a key moment. What is surprising, however, is that so far few bodies of the militia and the deceased horses have been found.
Bernard Wilkin is among a group of researchers who pointed out in the summer of last year that so few bodies from this period have turned up because locals stole them and sold them for hundreds of thousands of period francs to the sugar industry for use. the bones to whiten beet sugar.
“The market value of bones, theoretically animal, skyrocketed,” Wilkin noted. The peasants would have unearthed the mass graves to recover the bone remains and deliver them as if they were of animal origin so that they turned into a black powder in the blast furnaces that filtered the sugar syrup.
From 1834, the written sources show that the incidents multiplied: travelers saw disinterred bodies, parliamentarians denounced trafficking in "rotting bones" and the mayor of Braine l'Alleud (a town near Waterloo) warned with a sign that exhumations were prohibited and punishable.