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The palaeodemographic and palaeopathological study of the St.Rombout's cemetery, Mechelen

Contextual archaeo-anthropological studies – whereby skeletal and archaeological analyses are treated as one whole – are still uncommon. The detailed study of a sub-sample of 400 individuals from the excavation of St. Rombout’s cemetery in Mechelen, Belgium (10th-18th centuries AD) nevertheless demonstrates its enormous potential. A macroscopic study of mortality patterns and age and sex composition (palaeodemography) and the investigation of disease (palaeopathology) was combined with the study of funerary practices. This allowed the exploration of ‘who’ was buried in the churchyard, different socio-economic groups, burial customs and the physical health and lifestyle of the parish population. It also offered suggestions for circumstances of death in the case of several unusual burials.

The excavation, carried out between 2009 and 2011, resulted in the largest skeletal assemblage so far in Belgium, with over 4,000 individuals still in anatomical position, spread across more than eight centuries of continuous burial. Detailed on-site registration, extensive sampling for future biochemical analyses and archival documentation add to the exceptional nature of this collection and its potential for the study of patterns between groups and over time. The burials showed variation in the use of a coffin, the position and orientation of the body, the presence of a layer of lime, ash or loam and the number of individuals in the grave with indications for single, collective and multiple burial. This variation was used to explore patterns in the skeletal data. It offered interpretations on the socio-economic background, health and lifestyle of individuals and also documented the influence of sex and particularly age on social roles. Various skeletal changes were studied to explore wider patterns, including disturbances in the growth of individuals due to malnutrition or disease, lesions related to injury and physical stress, dental health and disease.

Chronological changes in demographic and palaeopathological data were observed from the late medieval to post-medieval period and the presence of different social groups was established. The main change was the appearance of a large group of adolescents (12-17 years) and young adults (18-25 years), mostly males, from the 15th-16th century layer onwards. Their less expensive and more unusual burials – including plain earth and collective burial, unusual positions and orientations – point towards a poorer and dependent social position. The individuals showed higher frequencies of growth disturbances, evidence of physical stress and disease. They may be servants, apprentices and immigrants and, considering the much higher proportion of males, may reflect the ‘extended male adolescence’ known from medieval historical sources. A Spanish military hospital (1585-1715 AD) near the cemetery may also have affected the age and sex composition. For individuals over 25 years of age single graves and coffins were more common. They showed fewer indications for growth disturbances and lesions related to disease, which were more commonly healed, indicating these were stronger, surviving, individuals. Wealth and social position may have depended on age or social position could have affected the probability of reaching old age.

Although females were generally more commonly associated with coffin burial, over 50 years of age males were more frequently buried in coffins. Males showed a large presence in the young adult category, while females showed a larger presence in the over 50 year category. Young adult males were also associated with growth disturbances, a high degree of physical stress and disease, while young adult females only showed higher levels of injury. Patterns of physical stress varied between sexes and between age categories. Overall males showed more pronounced differences as they got older and seem to have achieved more evident changes in social position around 25 years of age. Females showed less marked differences, with an apparently lower impact of lifestyle on health. 

The multiple burials, which indicate episodes of unusual or elevated mortality, showed a large proportion of adolescents and young adults, who were almost all male. The high probability of death between 15-29 years of age was different from the single depositions and a natural mortality pattern. However, it also does not illustrate a catastrophic mortality, where all age categories would have been equally affected. The age and sex composition implies a selection and the inclusion of individuals was likely related to both circumstances of death and socio-economic background, with higher numbers of poor and dependent individuals. The palaeopathological patterns are similar to those in the plain earth burials, but with more pronounced evidence for growth disturbances, physical stress and disease. A background with high levels of stress may have made these individuals more likely to succumb to mortality crises such as epidemics or famines. There is no macroscopic evidence for a specific cause of death, although the lack of trauma inflicted around the time of death argues against violence. Differences in the organisation of the graves between the two studied groups of multiple burials (labelled as groups A and B), which date to different periods and showed differences in age and sex composition, suggest that they result from different circumstances of death and burial. Group A, with one phase of deposition (second half 15th century–early 17th century), reflects more abrupt mortality crises, such as epidemics or famines, in the parish population. Group B, where individuals were buried in different phases (second half 17th century–18th century), may possibly be connected to the Spanish military hospital.

Other unusual graves included lime burials. Physico-chemical analyses confirmed the presence of lime and the contextual analysis indicated the possibility of different motives and variable practices. Disease could however be proposed for several burials, where lime may have been included for disinfection. The contextual study of a mass grave with the remains of 41 executed brigands (1798 AD), also underlined the importance of detailed excavation and the combination of archaeological, historical and skeletal information. The execution could be reconstructed and compared to historical descriptions, some of which could be contradicted.

Using the differences in funerary practices to explore patterns in the skeletal data resulted in detailed and nuanced interpretations. The assemblage does not directly represent the original parish population and includes different social groups from the lower and middle classes. Gender and particularly age influenced the meaning of social roles and affected physical health and lifestyle. The results could be compared to other late medieval and post-medieval studies in North-Western Europe. This showed similarities as well as regional variation and emphasised the influence of population background on patterns in the skeletal data.

The study demonstrates the importance of contextual analyses for the interpretation of patterns in archaeological skeletal collections. Hopefully this approach will become more common, with an increased cooperation between archaeologists and archaeo-anthropologists. 


Date:1 Oct 2011 →  23 Jun 2017
Disciplines:Demography, Archaeology, Theory and methodology of archaeology, Other history and archaeology, Laboratory medicine, Anthropology
Project type:PhD project