The Napoleonic Discovery of Mass Graves in Austria
A team of battlefield archaeologists near Deutsch-Wagram in Austria, working from a “makeshift detective's office inside a shipping container with photos of mass graves,” have discovered one of the biggest battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
Over 50,000 soldiers died during the Austrian army’s stand-off with Napoleon Bonaparte's troops at the Battle of Wagram between July 5 and 6, 1809. According to an article in Live Science the researchers mapped “the hastily dug mass graves and campsites, as well as the thousands of musket balls, bullets, buttons and personal items that were dropped on the field.”
The Battle of Wagram occurred when French emperor Napoleon waged wars across the continent between 1799 and 1815. During the spring and summer of 1809, the War of the Fifth Coalition broke out bringing the French and Austrian Empires to war. In May 1809 the Battle of Aspern-Essling near Vienna marked Napoleons first major defeat but six weeks later Napoleon launched a surprise attack on the Austrian camp near modern-day Deutsch-Wagram.
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Archaeologists in Austria are excavating battlefield from the Napoleonic Wars before highway work continues. (Image: Novetus)
The Mass Grave Highway
Archaeologists seized the chance to excavate when Austria's highway authority, ASFINAG, announced they were building a new speedway from the east of Vienna to the border with Slovakia, cutting through Deutsch-Wagram. Austrian cultural heritage laws insisted that ASFINAG employed archaeologists on the construction project to look for anything ancient that might otherwise be lost during the building in of the highway.
Archaeologist Alexander Stagl, CEO of Novetus, a cultural-resource management firm in Vienna who have been managing excavations at the site since March 2017, told reporters, “We always knew that this battlefield was around here, but there has never been planned or focused archaeological research on it".
One of the dig sites is around the size “of 27 American football fields” and Live Science reported that “ASFINAG has said it set aside 3 million euros ($3.5 million) for the excavation, with half of that money going to the farmers whose land must be rented for the dig to take place. Stagl said of the location, "We are in the hotspot of the battle. This is the reason I think we have so many findings.”
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The skeletons are telling about the health of the soldiers. (Image: Novetus)
Tiny Clues from Mass Grave
A team of Bioarchaeologists are also examining the skeletal remains of the soldiers. Michaela Binder of the Austrian Archaeological Institute and Hannah Grabmayer of Novetus conducted an anthropological investigation of the skeletons and told reporters at Live Science, "What's really interesting is to learn how the soldiers lived."
Having examined 50 skeletons so far most were found to be men between 16 and 30 years old and Binder said they bear “traces of scurvy from vitamin C deficiency, inflammation of the joints from long marches carrying heavy loads.” She also noted that they suffered “infections like pneumonia and other diseases that would have spread in the cramped conditions of the military camp.” Binder believes that the six week period between the Battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram “seem to have been hard on the soldiers, with an increase in evidence of respiratory diseases seen in the skeletons found at Deutsch-Wagram.”
Binder also pointed out that the average soldiers’ stories were not recorded in “the official histories, diaries and poems about the Napoleonic Wars” and thinks “bioarchaeology has the responsibility to document their stories…55,000 people dead in two days - that's hard to imagine.”
Uniform pieces found at the site. Hundreds of objects are being recorded and will add to the history of the battlefield. (Image: Novetus)
To satisfy Binders need for the common man’s story, while some archaeologists are mapping the battlefield with hi-tech scanning equipment to better understand the broad strokes, others have their head firmly fixed on the ground, in the world of bio-archaeology, to try and grasp the details of the battle.
When thousands of dead soldiers are rapidly buried at a battlefield, archaeologists are later offered a thick matrix of artifacts to study, which all yield significant data. While most of the soldiers clothing has rotten away, archaeologists have found the metal buttons have survived and Stagl said that these “buttons” offered lots of interesting information but “studying these objects is a science of its own.”
From a button, archaeologists can not only identify the rank and nationality of a soldier, but Konik thinks his team have found a French officer, and might be able “to identify this man by name.”
Top Image: Several m ass graves have been found at the site of one of the biggest battles of the Napoleonic Wars, during which some 55,000 soldiers died in July 1809. Source: Novetus
By Ashley Cowie