In 2020 construction workers in the Netherlands made a gruesome discovery. While working in the city of Vianen they came across an enigmatic mass burial. Were the 82 skeletons victims of war, a plague, or something more sinister? Now archaeologists have an answer, but it’s not what they expected – the mass grave contained the remains of British soldiers.
Discovering Vianen’s Mysterious Mass Grave
Workers were excavating Vianen’s historic moat when they made the startling discovery. They were excavating a filled-in section that would be re-joined to the rest of the city’s canal, and while working outside the grounds of Batestein Castle they came across the skeletons. This castle was built in the 1370s by Gijsbrecht van Beusichem, when Vianen was largely a self-governing city-state.
Batestein Castle. ( Public Domain )
A number of important aristocratic families also lived at Batestein Castle, which was abandoned in the 18th century after a fire caused by fireworks. According to the Daily Mail , ‘the Hof or Bosch Gate, and some connecting wall parts,’ are all that remains of what was once one of the most impressive castles in the Netherlands .
Initially, nine skeletons were recovered, but later investigations revealed several others. In total 82 skeletons, mostly of males, were recovered. All of them are believed to have died between the ages of 15 and 30. Following the discovery, Tellereport quoted a local representative, Alderman Christa Hendriksen, as saying that she was “surprised by the find.” This find is most unusual because of the positioning of the bones. Tellereport quotes the Alderman as saying that “some of the skeletons are stacked.”
Some of the skeletons were found stacked on top of each other. ( RTV Utrecht )
No textiles or objects such as jewelry were found in the mass grave, and this is also unusual. Many nails were unearthed, and they probably indicate that the bones had been placed in a wooden box that disintegrated into the earth long ago.
The identity of the remains proved to be something of a mystery because of the lack of archaeological evidence found in the grave. The archaeologists initially looked towards the history of the castle for help in solving this mystery. The castle dates to the 14th century, when Europe was regularly ravaged by the Bubonic Plague or ‘Black Death;’ so they wondered if the dead could have been victims of the plague. It was common for plague victims to be buried in hastily dug pits.
The second possibility the researchers considered was related to the Netherland’s War of Independence . In 1566 the Dutch revolted against the Spanish, whom they saw as foreign oppressors. The Daily Mail reports that ‘In 1567, the surrounding town and castle was overrun by the Spanish Army .’ So the archaeologists entertained the possibility that the skeletons may have been related to that war. For more than 80 years the Netherlands was intermittently the scene of heavy fighting and prolonged sieges.
However, the fact that there were no objects found with the dead, not even buttons, and that the deceased were not buried on consecrated ground in a church suggested that the mass grave in Vianen may have been linked to something sinister. Were the skeletons the result of a massacre, possibly during the lawless and brutal Middle Ages?
One of the skeletons found in the mass grave in Vianen, the Netherlands. ( De Steekproef )
Further investigations needed to take place for the scientists to narrow down the date of the remains and to find out how the individuals ended up in a mass grave in Vianen. The research was led by a forensic anthropologist named April Pijpelink and it shows that the initial hypotheses about the skeletons are wrong.
Many of the individuals found in the mass grave were British soldiers, who the experts believe died of illness while in an 18th Century field hospital. Archaeologist Hans Veenstra told the BBC that it was sufficient to take samples from just six of the individuals because this was a mass grave, suggesting that everyone found within it died under similar circumstances.
Forensic analysis showed that that all but four of the skeletons were men and many of the soldiers came from England. The BBC reports that isotope analysis on the remains showed that ‘one came from southern England, possibly Cornwall, another from southern Cornwall and a third from an urban English environment. Two more may have been from the Netherlands but of possible English descent while the other was from Germany.’ Pijpelink said “At first we thought these man [sic] died of injuries in battle. But during my research it became clear that around 85% of them suffered from one or more infections, while basically all their trauma wounds had healed.”
Remains found in the mass grave in Vianen, the Netherlands. ( RTV Utrecht )
Telling the Tale of the ‘Ordinary Man’
Why were the British soldiers in Vianen in the first place? “It’s most likely these young men came to fight against the French,” Pijpelink said. The men were probably part of a coalition who was fighting the French during the Revolutionary Wars of 1793–1795. It’s believed that they were buried in the mass grave after succumbing to bacterial infections due to poor hygiene in a field hospital, which is known to have been located on the same site. The analysis of the remains revealed that pneumococcal bacteria was involved in many of the deaths.
Veenstra reflected on the importance of this discovery because it tells the story of normal people from the past. He said “History is full of writing about the elite, people with power, money and status. But you don’t often hear about the ordinary man […] That’s what makes this interesting. They lived in very poor conditions, they all had a poor upbringing with a lot of malnutrition and hard work. They’d already damaged their backs by doing hard labour.”
“These youngsters are still anonymous, but they do fill a gap in a forgotten piece of history,” Veenstra concluded.
Top image: Remains found in the mass grave in Vianen, the Netherlands. Source: Anne-Floor van Pelt
By Ed Whelan