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This project proposes to study the collections of cremated bone found in Belgium dating from the Neolithic to the Early-Medieval period. It includes existing collections available at UGent and ULB as well as in Federal Institutions (e.g. KMKG-MRAH). In addition, recently excavated material from the Hofstade, Wijnegem, Kontich and Brecht urnfields, as well as the archaeological site ofr Broechem will also be included in this project. CRUMBEL greatly improves current understanding of how people lived in Belgium between 3000 BC and 700 AD. Until now the dominance of cremation as funeral practice from that period in Northern Europe led to limited information on migrations and living conditions.

Over the last decade, it has been shown that radiocarbon dates could be obtained from cremated bone (Lanting & Brindley, 1998; Lanting et al. 2001). Several Belgian collections have since been investigated providing much more in depth information about the chronology, development, and disappearance of cremation as funerary practice in Belgium (e.g. De Reu et al. 2012; De Mulder et al. 2013). Thanks to the recent demonstration that calcined bone provides a reliable substrate for strontium isotopes (Snoeck et al. 2015), more in depth information can be obtained about population dynamics in Belgium from the Neolithic to the Early-Medieval Period covering a period of 3000 years where cremation was one of the dominant funerary practices and burial rites.

Belgian collections of cremated remains are plentiful but spread around different Universities, Museums and Institutions. Due to this lack of coherence in the collections, it is, at present, quite complex to comprehensively study these collections. The CRUMBEL project will create a database detailing all these collections, date the most interesting and relevant specimens using radiocarbon dating and will, through isotope analyses, extract information about mobility and lifestyles as well as the evolution of funerary practices in Belgium since the arrival of agriculture in the Neolithic to the decline of the Roman Empire.

The objectives of this project are threefold:

  1. Bring back to life the important Belgian collections of Neolithic to Early-Medieval cremated bone. This will be done in several steps:

    • Establish a database of the Belgian collections of cremated remains (looking into know existing collections and striving to find forgotten ones)

    • Assess sex and age of the individuals when possible

    • Establish a refined chronology using the existing radiocarbon dates and carrying out new ones

    • Study population dynamics using strontium isotopes

    • Better understand the changes in cremation techniques through time using infrared and X-Ray fluorescence analyses, as well as stable isotope (C & O) analyses

    • Disseminate these results to the wider public through exhibits and other venues (e.g. replication of a cremation open to the public, etc.) 

  2. Establish a map of the biologically available strontium for Belgium that will be useful as a baseline for the strontium isotope ratios obtained from cremated bone. This map will not only be of interest to this project but also to all researchers studying mobility of humans and animals in Belgium.

  3. Look into the possibility to extract endogenous other structural, elemental and isotopic signals from cremated bone. 


To reach these objectives, different methods will be used:

  • Database of cremated bone from Belgium thanks to collections and contacts from UGent & ULB

  • Radiocarbon dating of the cremated bone and possible associated materials at KIK-IRPA

  • MC-ICP-MS for strontium isotope analyses of cremated bone and modern plants, as well as developmental work on other isotope ratios of cremated bone at ULB

  • ICP-MS for strontium concentrations of cremated bone at VUB

  • IRMS for carbon and oxygen isotopes of the cremated remains at VUB

  • FTIR and XRF analyses of the cremated bone at VUB


The outputs of this project will be:

  • A database regrouping all human cremated remains present in Belgian collection

  • A map of the biologically available strontium for Belgium

  • New insights in mobility patterns and funerary practices in Belgium from the Neolithic to the Roman Empire

  • New methodological developments for the study of cremated bone in a wide range of contexts

  • Cremation reconstitutions open to the public showing the evolution of cremation practices over 3000 years in Belgium

  • A series of publications in National and International journals

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