Belgium's Largest Collection of Human Remains Reveals Its Secrets

Opgravingen Sint-Romboutskerkhof Mechelen (Foto: Dienst Archeologie - Stad Mechelen)
25/06/2018
Belgium's Largest Collection of Human Remains Reveals Its Secrets
post by
Reinout Verbeke

An anthropologist from our Institute has analyzed 350 human skeletons from a cemetery in Malines, Belgium. The human remains date from the 10th until the 18th century, and are part of the largest skeletal assemblage ever found in Belgium. The condition of the skeletons and the graves show that starting from the 15th century, there was a significant increase in the number of young men.

Between 2009 and 2011, archaeologists from the city of Malines revealed a cemetery next to the St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Malines, before the construction of an underground parking lot. On an area of 2000 m2 they found the remains of 4.158 individuals in 3.617 graves. It is the biggest collection of human remains ever found in Belgium. It is kept in the immovable heritage depot of Malines

The graves date back to the 10th-18th centuries. Historical sources show that the cemetery was used continuously for over 800 years, before being turned into a park in 1785. Anthropologist Katrien Van de Vijver analyzed the skeletons and graves of 351 individuals in detail (during research at the KU Leuven, now working in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences). She studied age, sex, disease- and mortality patterns. Van de Vijver: ‘By combining archaeology and anthropology, we can envision ‘who’ was buried on the cemetery, which socio-economic groups lived in the parish and how they changed throughout the centuries.’

Men who died young

Van de Vijver concluded that during the 15th and 16th centuries, a large group of adolescents (12-17 years) and young male adults (18-25 years) appeared. ‘Their graves – often collective and mostly without coffin -  indicate a lower social status. The individuals more often showed growth deficiencies, traces of physical stress and illness. These are clues that there was a large subgroup of servants, apprentices and immigrants in the parish. Their lower status made them more vulnerable to illness and caused them to die young.’ Van de Vijver is careful about forming definitive conclusions: ‘Only a part of the cemetery was uncovered, so it is possible we did not find many women because they were buried somewhere else.

The big group of men who died young in the 17th and 18th centuries is possibly partly an effect of the Spanish military hospital, which was situated next to the cemetery between 1585 and 1715. On two skeletons of young men, who were probably patients at the hospital, Van de Vijver found traces of syphilis. They are the only documented archaeological cases in Belgium thus far.

The study on human remains at the St. Rumbold’s Cathedral – part of Van de Vijver’s doctoral research at the KU Leuven (Center for Archaeological Sciences), was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

To which degree did gender, age, social status, diet and health influence individuals? Can we track were people came from? Archaeologists, anthropologists and researchers from other domains will have to work together in the future to unravel life around the St. Rumbold’s Cathedral.

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