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A Soldier's Story

The battle that changed European history, told through the lens of a young man’s remains


Friday, February 08, 2013

UPDATE: In early 2015, the soldier's remains were identified as possibly being those of Friedrich Brandt, a member of the King’s German Legion, made up of German soldiers who fought with the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars.


Waterloo Skeleton Soldier

The battle began mid-morning, Sunday, June 18, 1815. Throughout the day, more than 200,000 soldiers met on a piece of land only 2.5 miles square near the small Belgian town of Waterloo. Blinded by smoke from gunpowder, deafened by cannon blasts, and in constant fear of long-distance gunfire, close-range saber fights, or being trampled in a cavalry charge, the soldiers fought on. By evening, the battleground was completely covered with the wounded, dead, and dying. The Allied forces, led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian General von Blücher, had defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée by the slimmest of margins, signaling the end of the emperor’s reign in France and ushering in a period of prosperity and peace in Europe that would last for nearly half a century. But a battle’s stories are not only those of dethroned monarchs, victorious generals, or territory gained or lost. Sometimes the remains of the men who died on that day tell the richest tales.



Behind the British lines, away from the battlefield, a single soldier lay mortally wounded by a musket ball. Perhaps he dragged himself behind the front line, dropped to the ground to rest, and died not long after. Or maybe he expired before he could be transported to the infirmary, less than 1,000 feet away. He likely died in the early to middle part of the day and was quickly buried by his comrades or by an explosion that churned up the earth and covered his body. Had he died at the end of or after the battle, his corpse would have been recovered by soldiers collecting their dead. But this soldier would have to wait a while longer for someone to tell his story.


Waterloo Coins DiscoveredAlmost two centuries after the soldier’s death, the role of storyteller fell to archaeologist Dominique Bosquet of the Université libre de Bruxelles. He found the soldier while excavating before construction near the battle monument known as the Lion’s Mound. For Bosquet, the discovery was a complete surprise. “I think this is a unique case,” he says. “We excavated 120 trenches in this area, covering more than half an acre, and found almost nothing and no other remains.” In fact, the soldier is not just the only one to have been found in this area—he is the first and only British soldier to have fought and died at Waterloo ever discovered on the site. (Another soldier was supposedly found in the early twentieth century; however, later DNA analysis showed that the remains came from two different people and that that “soldier” was a forgery.) Although the soldier’s head and one of his knees were destroyed by a bulldozer, and some of the bones of his hands and feet were damaged either by a plow—the area has long been a wheat field—or perhaps by a battlefield explosion that tore them away, the skeleton is remarkably intact. Bosquet is able to say that he was between 20 and 29 years old, about five feet three inches tall, with a slender frame. 


Archaeology Island

More than 4,000 years of history in only 16 square miles


Monday, February 11, 2013



A forgotten sliver of land in the far north of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait’s Failaka Island is home now mostly to camels. Its only town is a sprawling ruin pockmarked with bullet holes and debris from tank rounds, and the landscape beyond seems empty and bleak. Even before Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait prompted its sudden evacuation, Failaka in the past century was little more than a quiet refuge for fishermen and the occasional Kuwaiti seeking relief from the mainland’s fierce heat. But just under the island’s sandy soil, archaeologists are discovering a complex history extending back 4,000 years, from the golden age of the first civilizations to the wars of the modern era.


The secret to Failaka’s rich past is its location, just 60 miles south of the spot where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers empty into the Gulf. From the rise of Ur, the world’s largest metropolis in the late third millennium B.C., until Saddam Hussein’s attack during the First Gulf War, the island has been a strategic prize. For thousands of years, Failaka was a key base from which to cultivate and protect—or prey on—the lucrative trade that passed up and down the Persian Gulf. In addition, there were two protected harbors, potable water, and even some fertile soil. The island’s relative isolation provided a safe place for Christian mystics and farmers amid the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., as well as for pirates a millennium later.


Currently, archaeological teams from no less than half a dozen countries, including Poland, France, Denmark, and Italy, are at work on Failaka. Given the political volatility of neighboring nations such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the island offers a welcome haven for researchers unable to conduct their work in many other parts of the region. “I started encouraging teams to come in 2004,” says Shehab Shehab, Kuwait’s antiquities director. “And I want to encourage more.”


The mainland of Kuwait is mostly harsh desert, with only a handful of significant ancient sites. Even the old town of Kuwait City, dating back two centuries, was long ago demolished to make way for skyscrapers. Thus Failaka is of prime importance to the country’s heritage. Recently, much of the island’s history was threatened by a plan to transform the barren land with its rocky coast into a major tourist magnet, complete with marinas, canals, spas, chalets, and enormous high-rise hotels and condominiums. In the wake of the global economic recession, however, the $5 billion project foundered, and was recently shelved. Shehab has moved into the resulting vacuum, lobbying hard to turn all of Failaka into a protected site in order to enable archaeologists to uncover, study, and preserve this small nation’s past.


The government already sets aside more than $10 million annually to cover the costs of foreign projects in Kuwait, and hopes to promote science as well as encourage heritage tourism. “Shehab’s dream is to create in Kuwait a kind of research center for Gulf basin archaeology,” says archaeologist Piotr Bielinski from the University of Warsaw, who is digging at a prehistoric site on the mainland just north of Kuwait City. And excavators on Failaka are making the most of this unique opportunity, exposing evidence of Mesopotamian merchants, religious structures representing three cultures and spanning more than 2,500 years, a pirate’s lair, and the remains of Failaka’s last battle, ample testimony to the island’s millennia-long endurance.

Pirates of the Original Panama Canal

Searching for the remains of Captain Henry Morgan's raid on Panama City


Monday, February 11, 2013



Like an illuminated skyline at sea, two dozen cargo ships wait along Panama’s Caribbean coast. One after another, they enter Limon Bay and then the Gatun locks, three hydraulic chambers that lift the ships 85 feet above sea level. They exit into Gatun Lake and then the Chagres River. After 28 miles, through a cleaved mountain ridge and under the Pan-American Highway, the ships enter more locks—the Pedro Miguel lock and the two Miraflores locks—that ease the ships back down to sea level in Balboa Harbor, just southwest of Panama City. A trip through the Panama Canal from Atlantic to Pacific takes around nine hours and costs tens of thousands of dollars in tolls.


Long before the completion of the canal in 1914, this narrowest stretch of the isthmus separating the oceans was already used to avoid an 8,000-mile detour around Cape Horn. Ships unloaded cargo at the mouth of the Chagres River, seven miles from the modern canal entrance. Flat-bottomed river barges then moved people and cargo upriver to within 13 miles of Panama City, where donkeys took over on the Camino de Cruces trail. “For four centuries the Chagres has been the bond of union between the two great oceans of the world, the way between the East and West,” wrote C.L.G. Anderson, an early-twentieth-century historian. Until the river became part of the canal it inspired—dammed to form Gatun Lake—it was the original, natural “Panama Canal.”


Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Spanish used this route to supply Panama City and move gold and silver from the city to galleons in the Caribbean. In 1671, famed English privateer Captain Henry Morgan took the largest pirate fleet in history up the river to sack the city and rattle Spain’s control of the Americas. And centuries later, during the California Gold Rush, it was easier for prospectors to take a steamer to Panama, sail up the river, then make their way north in the Pacific than it was to travel overland between America’s coasts. For all the precious metals that have traveled up and down it, the Chagres has been called “the world’s most valuable river.”


Since the first trans-isthmus railroad opened in 1855, the mouth of the Chagres River has been a backwater surrounded by a clotted jungle full of anteaters, toucans, and bellowing howler monkeys. On a promontory above, shaped like the prow of a massive ship, sit the ruins of El Castillo de San Lorenzo el Real de Chagre, or Fort San Lorenzo, which defended the important trade route between 1626 and 1741. It was sacked several times, including by Morgan’s men on their way to Panama City in 1671. Fritz Hanselmann, an underwater archaeologist at Texas State University, is looking for evidence of the privateer’s Panamanian raid—but not in the fort. He’s focused on a string of whitecaps in the sea 200 yards from it, treacherous Lajas Reef, which sank five of Morgan’s ships, including his flagship Satisfaction.


City of Towers
Horseshoe Wreck




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