Walls made of human bones found under the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium

By excavating places considered conventional, archaeologists can sometimes make unexpected finds. This is the case of a team of Belgian archaeologists who, excavating the underground areas of the Gothic Saint Bavo church, discovered several walls constructed with human bones - only bones of the lower limbs and skulls. A specificity that questions researchers.

Archaeologists recently discovered walls constructed from human bones, including broken skulls, during the excavation of the grounds of Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. At the end of the excavation, archaeologists had discovered nine walls, built mainly with adult femurs and shins. The intermediate areas were filled with skulls, many of which were fragmented, according to Ruben Willaert.

Bones from the cleaning of an old cemetery

These horrific structures were probably the work of people who, hundreds of years ago, cleaned up an old cemetery to make room for new bodies or the renovation of a church, says archaeologist Janiek De Gryse, Ruben Willaert staff member and excavation project manager.

“When cleaning up a cemetery, the skeletons cannot just be thrown away. Since the faithful believed in a resurrection of the body, the bones were considered the most important part," adds Gryse. Safeguarding human remains was so important that sometimes stone houses were built against the walls of city cemeteries to house skulls and long bones in what is called an ossuary.

The bony walls were discovered on the north side of Saint-Bavon cathedral, formerly known as Saint-Jean-Baptiste or Saint-Jan church. Radiocarbon dating of the bones suggests that they date from the second half of the 15th century, but the walls were probably built later, in the 17th or early 18th century. Historical documents support these dates. A source notes that the church cemetery was cleaned during the first half of the 16th century and again, after 1784, when he stopped accepting new bodies.

Smaller bones like the vertebrae, the bones of the hands or feet were not used for the construction of the walls. Credit: Ruben Willaert

Walls made entirely of lower limb bones and skulls

Whatever the date, these walls are a unique find. Most historic cemeteries are made up of large pits or layers filled with human bones. “We have no comparison in Belgium. We have never seen structures, like walls, intentionally constructed with human bones,” says de Gryse.

Those who built these walls had to be in a hurry, because they did not bother to pick up small or fragile bones, such as vertebrae, ribs or bones of the hands or feet. Curiously, archaeologists also did not find a humerus or radius (main arm bones).

“The walls are made up only of bones of the lower limbs. Is it only a practical thing (stacking bones very compactly) or is there also a religious / spiritual dimension? Asks Gryse. Although there are bones of adult men and women, the bones of children appear to be missing from the walls, which conflicts with the known life expectancy of this period, when children often died of disease.


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