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This ERC (European Research Council) project aims to shed light on changes in mobility, migration patterns and landscape use of early populations in Europe by bringing together information obtained directly from both cremated and inhumed individuals using state-of-the art bioarchaeology. 

The aim is to identify and characterise the movement of people on a local, regional and European scale to explain how and why people moved, as well as how they used their surrounding landscape between the Neolithic to the Early Medieval period, when both cremation and inhumation were practised.

Dries Tys & Christophe Snoeck for VUB, in collaboration with Barbara Veselka, Ioannis Kontopoulos, Rica Annaert, Elli Stamataki & Marta Hlad.

This project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between natural scientists of VUB, ULB, UGent, and KIK/IRPA, where cremation burials from between the Neolithic and the Early Middle Ages will be studied from a mutual bioarchaeological (isotope studies and osteoarchaeology) perspective and a cultural perspective (burial rites). This is a collaboration between Dr. Christophe Snoeck (VUB), Prof. Martine Vercauteren (ULB), Prof. Guy De Mulder (UGent) & Dr. Mathieu Boudin (KIK/IRPA).

The Archaeology of Coastal Communities

Karin Nys & Dries Tys, in collaboration with Barbora Wouters, Yannick Devos, Luc Vrydaghs & Ralf Vandam. PhD students: Rosalie Hermans & Sarah Lo Russo.

Coastal zones, including riverine estuaries, have always constituted contact zones where people connected and interacted, thereby exchanging thoughts and goods. This connectivity as well as the dynamic coastal environment made these communities highly responsive to change and innovations. People continuously adapted to new situations and influences (trade, migration, climate, sea-level rise…), which stimulated the social resilience and the adaptation of changes in lifestyles. Both are embodied in the material features of the coastal landscape and its landing and meeting places, which acted as hubs for trade and ideas. Authors such as Gordon-Childe and Pirenne have in the past addressed the evolution of these centres and the related issue of urbanisation. MARI wants to further explore the responses to this dynamic connectivity by focussing on the archaeology of the landing and meeting places in different periods and parts of Europe, being Bronze Age Cyprus and the Medieval North Sea World. We approach this question of connectivity from different angles: the study of the exchange of artefacts, the changing environment and use of space, all the way to the bioarchaeology of the coastal communities (migration/traders). Our interdisciplinary approach combines field archaeology with high-definition archaeological sciences supported by analytical data, and confront existing theory with hard scientific facts.

The Make-Up of the City: A Transdisciplinary Study of Urban Society in the Pre-Modern Low Countries

Bart Lambert, Dries Tys, Philippe Claeys, Steven Provyn, Christophe Snoeck & Thyl Snoeck.

This programme brings together the VUB’s internationally acclaimed expertise in urban history, archaeology, biogeochemistry and human anatomy to develop the very first platform for the comprehensive, transdisciplinary study of cities in the pre-modern Low Countries. Analysing archaeological contexts with the latest scientific methods, informed by historical questions and cutting-edge medical research, it aims to compensate for the fragmentary nature of written records and revolutionise current understandings of how urban societies functioned and evolved between
1000 and 1800. The programme’s pilot project focuses on late medieval Ieper. Despite the city’s status as an industrial giant and one of the largest urban centres of Europe during this period, its make-up remains poorly understood. For five years, a stable isotope expert and a human osteologist will study 1,200 late medieval human skeletons from Ieper’s St Nicholas parish, assisted by experts in history, archaeology, chemistry and medicine. Their work is expected to provide invaluable new insights into the city’s gender and age distribution, the origins of its inhabitants and their migration patterns, as well as their diets, living conditions and life expectancies. These results will be synthesised in a series of collaborative, peer-reviewed publications. Drawing on additional funding, the platform’s transdisciplinary approach will later be applied to urban societies in other places and periods in the Low Countries and its results placed in a comparative European context.

The people behind the ashes

FWO PhD fellowship Marta Hlad.

Burned human remains are often encountered in various fields. While forensic scientists deal with fire victims, archaeologists study past communities who practiced cremations as a funerary rite. During burning, bones are subject to high temperatures (up to 1000 °C), resulting in changes in chemical composition and morphological alterations on macroscopic and microscopic levels. These changes, along with fragmentation, make obtaining demographic data challenging. Sex and age estimation and identification of pathological conditions are essential to criminal investigators to help identifying
fire victims and are important for the reconstruction of demographic profiles of past populations.
This research focuses on combining and developing bioarcheological and geochemical sex and age estimation methods that will provide fields of archaeology and forensic biology with novel and suitable tools to identify burned skeletal human remains. Macroscopic assessment, microscopic analysis via histology, tooth cementum annulation, and µCT and the application of geochemical methods
(i.e. isotope analysis) will be performed on modern cremated bone collections of known sex and age. The combination of methods yielding the best results will thereafter be used on Belgian archaeological collections to study past community dynamics and demography. Once tested, this new setup will be useful to a wide range of researchers that deal with identification of burned human remains.

The historic character of cultural landscapes: an integrative approach using remote sensing, scientific dating and digital data

Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Soetkin Vervust in collaboration with Dries Tys (VUB) & Sam Turner (Newcastle University).

Assessing the historic character of cultural landscapes: an integrative approach using remote sensing, scientific dating and digital data analysis.

New insights into the early medieval society in Northern-Francia from the beginning of the 5th to the end of the 7th century

FWO PhD fellowship Rica Annaert.

The transition from the Late Roman period to the Middle Ages in Northern Gaul remains rather obscure. Since very few written sources survived, archaeological research is the main source for the knowledge of Early Medieval society. Until the first half of the 20th century this knowledge remained limited to the material culture from Merovingian cemeteries. Theories of deserted land after the retreat of the Romans and repopulation by Germanic mass migration were rife. During the years 2001-2010 I got the opportunity to excavate an Early Medieval burial ground with 513 graves at Broechem (B, prov. of Antwerp). These excavations created a huge opportunity for further research. For the first time in Flanders modern excavation techniques were applied on a Merovingian cemetery: detailed description of the grave structures and the grave gifts but also bloc lifting of the objects. This approach tells us more about rituals, technical features, costume
traditions etc., but also provides us with information regarding the socio-economic relations and the symbolic traditions. The geographic situation of Broechem in a remote area of Northern Gaul, on a loamy sand plateau enclosed by rivers, and the presence of multi-cultural objects in the grave
goods, shed light on Early Medieval society. My research explores the meaning of this cemetery in this remote region by analyzing the material culture as a reflection of social and ideological life of this community in this transition period.

Rurale en kleine stedelijke populaties in de Lage Landen en Noordwest- Europa

FWO PhD fellowship Marit Van Cant.

FWOTM679: Rurale en kleine stedelijke populaties in de Lage Landen en Noordwest- Europa (AD 1100-1800) - het profiel van de plattelandsbewoners en stedelingen uit de lagere klasse doorgelicht adhv bestaande en nieuwe osteologische analyses.

A walk on the wild side of stable isotope biogeochemistry

Claeys, P., Elskens, M., Olde Venterink, H., Nys, K., Tys, D., Kervyn De Meerendre, M., Huybrechts, P., Van Griensven, A., Huysmans, M., Thiery, W. & Snoeck, C.
FWO & HERCULES financieringen.

Since, 1986, the VUB stable isotope laboratory is active in the fields of geology, oceanography, environmental chemistry and planetary sciences. Its research documented the demise of the dinosaurs by meteorite impact; characterized Antarctic micro-meteorites; reconstructed climate changes over the last 10,000 years; or traced the effect of the CO2 pump in the Southern Ocean. This new project, which stems from increasing national and international collaborations, takes the VUB stable isotope laboratory on a new research path by venturing in fields such a bioarchaeology, ecology, forensics and the sources of urban pollution. With the acquisition of a new versatile platform of state of the art mass spectrometers, the VUB multidisciplinary team proposes to precisely document changes in seawater temperature recorded in million years old fossil shells; track the behavior of anthropogenic nitrogen injected into aquatic ecosystems; study how the ongoing climate change affects the strategy used by plants to harvest water; and identify where the people buried at Stonehenge came from. Other stable isotope applications to be developed will identify murder victims by measuring the isotope composition of their nails or hair; check where Trappist monks get the water they use to make beer; verify that this expensive artisan-cheese was really produced locally; and source the origin of the minute carbon particles we inhale in our polluted cities and that so strongly affect our health.

Unlocking the potential of invisible stratigraphy - geoarchaeology as the key to understanding early medieval urbanisation

FWO postdoctoral fellowship Barbora Wouters.

Despite longstanding research on early medieval towns, several aspects of their formation and character remain poorly understood to this day. For the period between the 7-11th cent. AD, written sources documenting urban life are limited, and past archaeological studies have focused predominantly on long-distance trade and economy. In many of these towns, excavation has become impossible due to their protected heritage status or because they have remained densely occupied. Thus, many accepted interpretations are based on the continuous re-interpretation of the same sets of material evidence. However, their actual stratigraphy, the sedimentary matrix from which finds are recovered, has remained poorly studied. Two problems commonly arise on urban sites: homogeneous deposits where no stratigraphy can be discerned (dark earths), and thick sets of micro-laminated deposits of which the individual layers are too thin to study by naked eye. Micromorphology, the microscopic study of soils and sediments, offers an ideal way to study both types of deposits. However, this approach has never been applied to important towns in key regions for the development of early medieval urbanism, with a remarkable gap in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. This project will analyse the poorly understood phases from 6 towns in both regions in order to answer questions about their formation and development, and to produce new data that will allow us to confirm, nuance or challenge existing narratives.

Post-excavation research of the 1971-2005 excavation campaigns of Paul Åström at the Late Bronze Age site near Hala Sultan Tekke

Karin Nys, Jan Coenaerts, Melissa Samaes en Ralf Vandam.

Infra-Red Analyses from Macro to Nano Scales. From Novel Self-healing Materials to Jurassic Dinosaur Bone Cells

In 2013, the VUB research groups MARI, AMGC and SURF initiated the development of an analytical multi-disciplinary and interfaculty platform through the acquisition of a complementary set of X-Ray based equipment. It has enabled many inter-disciplinary projects ranging from documenting the chemical composition of Antarctic micrometeorites all the way to that of the 'Manneken Pis', which even attracted attention of the BBC! The current project takes this analytical venture one step further and leverages the multi-disciplinary research and its unique character within the VUB.