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.
PhD Funding – European Research Council, supervisor Prof. Christophe Snoeck
Movement represents a key feature of an individual’s life both now and in the past. How and why people moved in the past can be documented by biogeochemical studies on bone and teeth, and these are at the core of this project. However, in many cases, due to different funerary practices (i.e. cremation and inhumation), the type of archaeological skeletal elements available and their state of preservation is very variable. Characterizing mobility in times where both cremation and inhumation were practiced is challenging for three main reasons: (1) important amounts of information are destroyed during cremation with temperatures reaching up to 1000°C, (2) the bioarchaeological information obtained from unburned and burned human remains often represent different times in their life (e.g. youth/adolescence vs adulthood), and (3) the limited adequate baselines available prevent the refined contextualisation and interpretations of the results in many parts of Europe.
In this project, new proxies are developed for charred and calcined bone (burned above 650°C), while the potential of charred bone is also re-evaluated. In parallel, adequate baselines need to be created. This enables, not only increasing the amount and the quality of information extracted from cremated human remains, but also significantly augmenting the number of individuals analysed as charred bones are currently excluded from palaeomobility studies. Furthermore, to bridge the gap between cremation and inhumation and enable the full reconstruction of life histories, it is crucial to better characterize turnover rates of the different skeletal elements.
Coupled with state-of-the art statistical and spatial models, previously published results combined with newly obtained data significantly contributes to the documentation of human mobility from the Neolithic to the Early Medieval Period at a local (i.e. landscape use), regional and European scale, at times where both cremation and inhumation were practiced.
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).
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.
FWO PhD fellowship Elli Stamataki.
Cremated human bones are commonly found in Belgian archaeological contexts from the Metal Ages (Early Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age). Due to high temperatures reached during burning (up to 1000°C), organic components of bone disappear and significant structural, chemical and isotopic changes to the inorganic fraction of bone (bone apatite) take place. These changes, along with post-burial/taphonomic alterations make the study of cremated human remains extremely challenging. Despite these limitations, cremated bones play an increasingly important role in understanding ancient societies in which cremation was the dominant funerary practice. A huge diversity exists in the way cremation was practiced. It is related to the different attitudes of ancient communities towards death and different managements and treatments of the dead body.
The aim of this project is to combine ethnographical evidence, experimental archaeology, and state of the art analytical techniques to assess changes in the way cremation was carried out in Belgium and beyond from the Early Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age with a particular focus on the skills and specialisation of the cremator(s) (i.e. the person(s) carrying out the cremation). Understanding differences within and between archaeological sites represent a fundamental part of this project as it enables the study of the evolution of cremation funerary practices through time and space.
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.
PhD fellowship Rosalie Madeleine Hermans, PhD contributes to a larger VUB project: The Archaeology of Coastal Communities: social resilience, innovation and adaptation in landscape, settlement and material culture driven by migration and globalization, climate and environment.
The research focuses on land use and landscape in the earliest phases and during the development of towns, including medieval Antwerp (Belgium) and Brussels (Belgium) and late Bronze Age Hala Sultan Tekke (Cyprus). I apply phytolith research in combination with geoarchaeology. Phytoliths, mineral, opal silica ‘microskeletons’ of plants, are a relatively rarely used proxy in archaeobotanical research in Europe, especially when studied in micromorphological thin section. However, this proxy holds significant innovation potential, not just because of its excellent preservation, but also because it provides direct insights into: a) in the plant assemblages that were locally present in the soil; and b) in combination with thin section analysis, in how these plant assemblages were deposited there.
The PhD aims to contribute to archaeological questions on land use and landscape by applying innovative phytolith methods. These include:
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.
Veronica Jackson, The Make-Up of the City project, financed by the VUB’s Research Council.
The Make-Up of the City 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 the people of late medieval Ypres. 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. In her research, Veronica will analyse 500 late medieval human skeletons, creating ‘biological profiles’ of each individual including their biological sex and age at death. The work is expected to provide invaluable new insights into the city’s demographics, as well as their diets, living and working conditions, and life expectancies. These results will be synthesised in a series of collaborative outreach projects and peer-reviewed publications.
Rachèl Spros, Interdisciplinary Research Project: The Make-Up of the City (Funded by IRP18), An interdisciplinary collaboration between the Analytical, Environmental & Geo-Chemistry Research Group (AMGC) and the Maritime Cultures Research Institute (MARI), Christophe Snoeck, Bart Lambert, Philippe Claeys (PhD supervisors).
In 2018, about 1,200 human skeletons were excavated in Ieper’s St Nicholas parish (also known as the ‘Meersen’ site), dating from the 13th to early 17th centuries. The size of the cemetery, one of the largest of its kind discovered in Europe, allows for the transdisciplinary study of a significant cross-section of the city’s population, which, at its climax, counted over 30,000 people. The chronological distribution of the burials enables us to investigate how gender and age distribution, origins, diseases and diets changed over time. I will be responsible for the isotopic study of up to 150 of the skeletons excavated on the St Nicholas site. The key objectives of this PhD research are:
• to develop or improve in-house geochemical analytical methods for bioarchaeology to obtain the most accurate and precise isotopic results
• to determine the origins of the Ieper population, to compare those to the origins of other historic populations and to establish the city’s role in regional and transnational migration patterns
• to determine the dietary habits of the Ieper population and to compare these to the habits of other historic populations
• to determine how the origins, mobility and diets of the Ieper population changed over several centuries, taking into consideration the changing historical context
• to integrate the results on the gender and age distribution and the health of the Ieper population obtained through the osteological study within this project
• to integrate the results of this research and the specialised literature in order to come to a more comprehensive understanding of urban society in the Low Countries during the pre-modern period.
FWO-LAP CRIME, Carina Gerritzen, supervisors – Prof. Dr. Christophe Snoeck & Prof. Dr. Steven Goderis
The aim of this project is to develop new methodological procedures for the study of human remains, and to improve existing methodology to increase the use and applicability of isotope studies in archeology. This project combines traditional measurements of radiogenic 87Sr/86Sr, with δ88Sr. While the radiogenic 87Sr/86Sr ratio is directly related to age and type of geology, δ88Sr is linked to trophic level. Combining these two systems will lead to more precise studies on landscape use. Other isotope systems that will be tested for applicability are neodymium (143Nd/144Nd), and lead (208Pb, 207Pb, 206Pb, 204Pb). The accuracy for each system has to be tested individually to account for the geochemical and biochemical behavior of each isotopic system. Eventually, the combination of multiple isotope systems will lead to a much narrower assessment of the geographical origins of past individuals.
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.
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.
PhD fellowship Tessi LOEFFELMANN
The movement of people during the early medieval period is a major topic of debate in archaeology and various attempts have been made in the last centuries to describe these movements and the ensuing contact, defining them as assimilative or dominating. Evidence for migration and colonisation in eastern England during this time is traditionally predicated on changes in material culture including funerary rites. In this context, the late fourth to seventh centuries witnessed the reintroduction of cremation rituals and furnished burial. This has often been explained in terms of the migration of Germanic-speaking groups into eastern England. In the tenth century, parts of England were colonised again by the Norse, marked by changes in funerary rites, with rare examples of cremation and the brief return of furnished burial in parts of England. Thus, questions on mobility are inextricably linked to the reintroduction of cremation burials.
New scientific approaches have already shown that early medieval communities may have been more mobile than previously assumed; interregional mobility is suggested, and two-way processes of migration are also potentially evident. Strontium isotope analysis is the method that underpins these new discoveries, directly investigating the movement of individuals. The potential of this method has been recognised by scholars of the period, but until now methodological limitations have meant that it could only be applied to inhumations and not cremated individuals. This has exacerbated the widespread underestimation of the importance and potential of cremation burials: most research focuses on the burial context, including the urns. This project seeks to remedy this by assessing the evidence for mobility in individuals who have been cremated, by employing a strontium analysis method introduced by Snoeck et al. (2015). The results will be contextualised within our current understanding of the archaeology of the era and in terms of theories of identity, agency and social memory. This research project benefits from its set-up as a co-tutelle PhD between Durham University (UK) and VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussels), with Profs Janet Montgomery, Sarah Semple, Christophe Snoeck and Philippe Claeys supervising.
AOP PhD Melissa Samaes
Interpreting images is a challenge, especially since it is often considered subjective or tendentious. Scholars generally follow a historical cultural discourse. Often they do not have a key at their disposal to unravel the codes of the images. They rely on indirect evidence, which results in interpretations that are fundamentally conjectural and always representational. My study follows an analytical tool to understand the complex relationships and thus disentangle what the images are.
Investigating the ontology of objects to understand the social is still unexplored in Cypriot archaeology. I consider archaeological (material) assemblages as emergent and more-than-representational entities in a more-than-human world. Therefore, I apply postmodernist theory and approaches based on new materialism, specifically assemblage theory, to answer questions about what the images are and what they do.
Scholars in the humanities began to criticise Western dominance in our academic frameworks and sought ways to transcend traditional-humanist dichotomies and Western ontology in their studies.
Agency theory and Actor-Network theory (ANT) paved the way for symmetrical thinking in archaeology. From a symmetrical approach, humans are considered as mere components among various entities. This shifts the focus to more-than-human relationships between humans, non-humans and objects, and to how everything fits into the world. In particular, humans as an ontologically central entity are questioned. Furthermore, anthropological insights such as new animism found resonance in archaeological research and opened up the possibility of implementing alternative ontologies in our research. The symmetrical and anthropological approaches find a common source of inspiration in the philosophical thinking of Deleuze and Guattari. The different approaches are brought together under the banner of new materialism. New materialism allows us to take the ontological turn in the study of archaeological contexts where we do not have direct historical or ethnographic evidence. The emphasis is on the emergent and immanent properties of the human and non-human world as a collective whole.
Assemblage theory offers an approach that draws on new materialism. They see all kinds of entities symmetrically although they are not to be considered as equivalent. The ontologically distinct entities are nodes in assemblages that should not be understood as fixed networks (as in ANT) but rather as networks of associations. Assemblages are therefore heterogeneous in value, contingent, complex and open-ended. They allow us to reveal flows and fluxes that would otherwise go unnoticed. An ontological investigation substantiates our understanding of how objects can affect humans and the non-human and/or material world beyond. Objects take on an agentic role in the social and thus refuse to acknowledge an unambiguous meaning.
Despite the interest in those philosophical concepts from which we draw alternative research problems, archaeologists generally adhere to traditional and epistemological methodologies to understand the archaeological data.
I present two case-studies on the pictorial pottery of Late Bronze Age Hala Sultan Tekke (Cyprus), which draw on assemblage theory. The first case-study concerns bull images on imported Aegean vessels related to the tombs and older habitation of HST and its hinterland. The second case-study is about bird images. Birds occur exclusively in 12th century settlement contexts, where they appear on half of the complete pictorial assemblage. A Larnaca Bay production of a certain type of bird could be recognised.
I propose an analytical approach that allows the ontology of pictorial pottery to be examined as emerging, moving and changing in a variety of material (image and object), human (HST community) and non-human (natural environment) assemblages. In doing so, the pictorial pottery takes up its ontological position as a more-than-representational actant within the social.
Karin Nys, Jan Coenaerts, Melissa Samaes en Ralf Vandam.
OZR SRP funded PhD Sarah Lo Russo.
Micromorphology is a powerful technique to study natural and anthropogenic influences on sedimentation. It is capable of revealing a whole universe of information that is lost in classical archaeological analysis. In the context of my dissertation I would like to work on samples from three sites that have hardly been investigated (medival Antwerpen) or not yet investigated (Bronze Age Hala Sultan Tekke and Kehrsatz) micormorphologically. In this way it should be possible to better understand the activities and land use or the change of use in the course of settlement activities. These are key questions of the SRP-project "The Archaeology of Coastal Communities: social resilience, innovation and adaptation in landscape, settlement and material culture driven by migration and globalization, climate and environment" (short: SEArch), in which I’m writing my PhD-dissertations. Furthermore the micromorphological investigations will also enable me to define in situ sediment assamblages. This information is essential for further analyses, for example the determination of phytolites by Rosalie Hermans - also a PhD-Student in the SEArch-project.
FWO PhD fellowship Pieterjan Deckers.
This project deals with the issue of martime identity as visual in the archaeological record (landscaps, settlements and ceramics) in the souther north sea region.
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.
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.
FWO doctoral fellowship 2012-2016 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.
FWO postdoctoral fellowship 2017-2020 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.
FWO PhD fellowship Marit Van Cant.
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.