Mathieu Boudin

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Migration and mobility in the days of the Old Belgians

Little is known about the peoples that inhabited our lands before the arrival of the Romans. Mathieu Boudin is looking for answers in the cremated bone remnants of our distant ancestors.

Julius Caesar referred to the Celtic and Germanic tribes with which he had to deal in our lands, as Belgae. His successors gave us the further classification into Menapii (who lived by the coast), Nervii, Eburones (Meuse and Sambre valley) and Treveri (present-day Luxembourg).

Prehistoric grave remnants only provide limited insight into the earliest (unrecorded) history of our lands.  The problem is that virtually only cremated human remains are found: burning dead bodies (for example on ritual pyres) had been common practice for thousands of years.

However, not all the data pertaining to a person’s life are lost during cremation.  It is, for example, perfectly possible to date burned bone remains using the carbon-14 method. In 2016, biochemist and archaeologist Christophe Snoeck (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) demonstrated that the isotope ratio of the element strontium is preserved, even when exposed to temperatures of up to one thousand degrees.  What carbon is for time, strontium is for space: analysing the isotopes in organic material allows the geographical origin to be identified.

Last year, Snoeck’s work proved instrumental in clarifying the mystery surrounding the builders of Stonehenge.  The burned bones that were found years ago in the vicinity of the megalithic monument in the south of England, were found to contain the same strontium isotope distribution as the subsoil in West Wales, which was also the place of origin of the stones.  

A research group led by Snoeck has now been set up to study the carbon and strontium content of hundreds of cremated human remains previously dug up in Belgium. The Crumbel project is supported by an FWO grant under the Excellence of Science (EoS) programme. The project promotes joint fundamental research between researchers in the Flemish and French-speaking communities.

The group brings together scientists from the VUB, ULB, University Ghent and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) with which researcher (doctor) Mathieu Boudin is associated.  Within the Crumbel project, he is responsible for radiocarbon dating. “Our aim is to identify the geographical origin of people whose burned remains are now scattered across various Belgian (museum) collections, both public and private. In this way, we can map out the migration and mobility of the peoples that inhabited our lands, from the end of the Stone Age to the Early Middle Ages.”

To determine the carbon isotopes, Boudin uses the KIK-IRPA’s (small) particle accelerator. “Based on the strontium, we can determine from which region the bodies found in unearthed graves originated, or where these people spent most of their lives.”