Marks on Teeth of 82 Bodies Shed Light on Mass Grave

Burial site in Netherlands filled with Brits dates to War of the First Coalition in late 18th century
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 10, 2022 9:45 AM CDT
Mass Grave in Netherlands Is Full of Brits
An archaeologist works to uncover skeletal remains.   (Getty Images/microgen)

Experts believe they finally know why 82 bodies were tossed in a mass grave in the Netherlands in the late 18th century. The skeletons discovered well-preserved in clay outside the historic walls of Vianen in November 2020 belong to mainly British soldiers who were there to fight against the French in the final years of the century, the BBC reports. But they didn't necessarily die from injury. "Basically all their trauma wounds had healed," but "around 85% of them suffered from one or more infections," forensic anthropologist April Pijpelink says. Most were tied to pneumococcal bacteria.

Experts initially suspected the grave dated to the medieval period. But marks on the victims' teeth "showed that the men smoked pipes," and "pipe tobacco only appeared in the Netherlands from around 1600," project leader Anne-Floor van Pelt told the Sun last year. Tests were then performed on six of the skeletons. They revealed one individual came from southern England, another from southern Cornwall, and a third from an urban English area. Two others were thought to be from the Netherlands, but possibly of English descent, and a sixth was from Germany.

That pointed to the Flanders Campaign of 1793-95—the only conflict from the period involving British soldiers. They were assisted by German soldiers from the regions of Hanover and Hesse-Kassel in a push against post-revolutionary France as part of the War of the First Coalition. The soldiers would've been treated at a field hospital at Vianen's Batestein Castle, not far from the grave, where poor and cramped conditions likely reduced resistance to infection. These individuals "lived in very poor conditions ... with a lot of malnutrition" and had "already damaged their backs by doing hard labor," archaeologist Hans Veenstra tells the BBC. Some were only teenagers. (More archaeology stories.)

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