Hamerenne: a cemetery

Last year, our member and webmaster Hélène Déom was called on a (post-)medieval site excavations to analyze a certain amount of skeletons on the field and in the lab. Here are the results of this study, made in close collaboration with the archaeologist in charge, Christian Frébutte.


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The cemetery of Sainte-Odile chapel of Hamerenne (Rochefort)

Sainte-Odile chapel of Hamerenne is owned by the Abbey of Rochefort. That’s how Father-Abbot Gilbert and his friars decided to restore the chapel, making sure archaeological data was recorded in the process. In 1963-1964, the National Service of Excavations dug up six burials on the South side of the chapel and in the nave (Bourgeois et Mertens, 1965). Last year, a team, composed of operators and archaeologists from Wallonia (now Walloon Agency of Heritage), excavated a certain amount of burials around the building. A physical anthropologist (Hélène Déom) was called on the field by Father-Abbot, his friars and archaeologist Christian Frébutte, to ensure the quality of the whole study.

The remains discovered were mainly medieval masonry foundations and tombs dated to several phases of construction. First phase - materialized by a stone vault and a burial covered with stones - could be attributed to Early Middle Ages. The church’s walls of phase 2 were built upon these. This cemetery was then probably in use until the 18th century (Frébutte, 2017).


More than 60 burials were discovered during these excavations, including a large number of children buried next to the choir. This place suggests a certain privilege for the deceased and confirms the baptism of perinates and babies before their burial (Carron, 2016 ; Leroy, comm. pers.). Such situation was observed on other medieval sites, for instance the ancient Saint-Nicolas church of Thynes (Verbeek et al., 2006).


At least 82 individuals were identified in the cemetery. The demographic ratio is composed of a majority of juveniles: fetus, babies and children (from 3 to 16 years old). As to the adults, there was about as much men as women. The mean size for adults is coherent for the period and region: the women measured about 1m60 and the men 1m72. The mortality rate of the cemetery was defined by using the percentage of deceased individuals for each age category. By comparing to the standard mortality rate established for archaeological populations (Ledermann 1969), it appears that the large representation of children is less important than thought during excavations. The tombs thus constitute a good demographic sample.


The deceased people were buried according to standard Christian funerary practices: supine, they were oriented west/east, without any grave goods, in a shroud and/or in a coffin or a stone vault. Only one multiple burial was identified: a child lied on a woman’s right side. Also, the practice of reduction of the skeletons was recognized. This type of bones’ shifting on the burial’s border, in order to make some space to recent dead bodies, is usual for a cemetery.


Non-metric traits (discrete elements visible on the bones and teeth) with genetic potential were noted spatially in order to identify kinship. The more significant trait consists in an enamel defect (small hole) on the first lower molars of the two deceased buried in the multiple tomb: this trait confirms the hypothesis of a mother-daughter relationship between these two individuals.


More than half of the skeletons analyzed show traces of diseases on their bones. Children are rather affected by infections or deficiencies, while adults are affected by joint diseases, traumas or others. Indeed, some children exhibit traces of iron deficiency (anemia) as well as vitamin C (scurvy) or D deficiency (rickets). The skull of others present lesions related to sinus’ or meninges’ infections (endocranial lesions). A few young men have bony sequelae due to heavy weight lifting and other hard physical activities. This  pathological profile is coherent with other medieval and post-medieval sites in Belgium.


Two young women are affected with a congenital bone anomaly (fig. 3) : several toe phalanges are fused. Called « symphalangy », this defect regards the joint development of two distal phalanges (Nakashima et al., 1995). Such pathology is painless and sometimes noticed in modern subjects routinely radiographed. When localised at the feet, the “merged” toes are named « biphalangial toes » (Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin 2011), because we only count two phalanges - instead of three -.

In conclusion, the results of these excavations around the rural chapel of Hamerenne prove to be particularly interesting because they broaden our vision of medieval and postmedieval populations in Wallonia regarding funerary practices, demographics, kinship as well as health. Perinates, babies and children are rarely that well represented on an archaeological site. This suggests an infant mortality rather high, which stays nevertheless close to the standard mortality rate known for archaeological populations. Kinship between two individuals is suggested by non-metric traits and funerary practices. Some pathologies and rare anomalies complete the anthropological overview for this (post-)medieval cemetery.


physical anthropology trauma deviant burials isolated crania