Bones believed to belong to soldiers killed in the Battle of Waterloo have been found in an attic in Belgium.
Scientists are now analyzing the human remains to learn more about the identities of the deceased.
The battle was fought near the village of Waterloo, south of Brussels, on 18 June 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated here by the Duke of Wellington’s combined allied army of 68,000, aided by 45,000 Prussians led by Gebhard von Blücher.
Although more than 10,000 men are believed to have died in the battle, only two bodies have ever been discovered.
Historians recently revealed that many of those who fell at Waterloo were later exhumed 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 State Archives of Belgium, was lecturing in Waterloo about the process – in which the bones are used like charcoal in sugar purification – when something astonishing happened.
After the conversation, he told CNN, “This old man came up to me and said, ‘Dr. Wilkin, I have bones of these Prussians in my attic.’”
The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, showed Wilkin photographs of the bones and invited him to his house near the battlefield in Plancenoit, where Napoleon’s troops were fighting the Prussians.
A few days later, Wilkin visited the man at his home and came face to face with the remains that the man had been carrying since the 1980s. He explained that he was running a “small private museum” at the time and that he had been given the remains to display by a friend who had found them several years earlier.
Despite being a collector of Napoleonic memorabilia, the man told Wilkin he couldn’t “ethically” bring himself to display the remains, so he kept them in his attic.
Wilkin said of the man, who lives alone: “He suddenly decided he was old and could die in the next few years and he was afraid of what would happen to the bones. When he saw the research 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 was deeply damaged by a sword or a bayonet, so it was a very cruel way to die,” he said.
Initial tests showed that the remains belonged to at least four soldiers. Items found close to the bones, including leather and bone buttons, as well as the location where they were discovered, suggested 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 to me was to bury them in a dignified manner.”
That is certainly the plan, but for now the remains are undergoing extensive forensic examination in Liege, where Wilkin is based. Scientists hope to extract DNA to identify the dead. They also hope to make facial reconstructions of at least one of the skulls.
Rob Schäfer, a German military historian, works with Wilkin to learn more about the soldiers, while also liaising with the German War Graves Commission.
He told CNN: “What fascinated me the most is the fact that when you look at art from the 19th century, where conflict is depicted, it’s all very interesting and abstract. As a casual observer you might get the impression that it wasn’t that bad, but this one skull with massive facial trauma shows for the first time just how violent the age really was.
Schäfer told CNN there is a 20%-30% chance of extracting DNA from the remains.
He said: “It’s a gamble, but if we’re successful the next goal is to load the DNA into databases so people can come forward if they find they’re related.”
After coming across the bones in the attic, Wilkin was in for another surprise.
“When I visited, the man told me ‘by the way, I have another friend who probably has four British soldiers that he discovered during (metal) detection next to the Lion’s Mound (on the battlefield)’, he said.
“I was surprised, this was really crazy.”
Wilkin told CNN those bones were later examined by Dominique Bosquet, an archaeologist from the Walloon Heritage Agency. They have since moved to Brussels, where they are studied by Bosquet and a team from the Museum of Natural History and the University of Brussels.
The finds have led Wilkin and his colleagues to suspect that more people living close to the battlefield may have skeletons in their closets.
“It’s pretty clear that we need to talk to the people who have lived there for generations,” he said, adding, “We’re pretty sure more bones need to be returned to Belgian authorities.”