Post-Medieval Carmelite Monastery in Aalst by K. Quintelier & colleagues

This Spotlight of the Month presents the work of Kim Quintelier and her colleagues on a post-medieval Carmelite monastery in Aalst (East Flanders, Belgium). They used stable isotope examination combined with macroscopic analysis to study this urban graveyard.

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The Carmelite monastery of Aalst was excavated in 2004 and 2005 before the construction of an underground car park. It was a collaboration between the former Flemish Heritage Institute (now Flanders Heritage Agency) and the town council of Aalst. In 2011, additional excavations were made in the adjacent areas by Solva, the intercommunal archaeological service of the region. One of our members and physical anthropologists, Kim Quintelier, worked with them on the case.


During the first excavations, a total of 238 primary burials were discovered in the church and in the cloister. In 2011, another 160 primary burials were found in the south-eastern part of the cloister. All the excavated skeletons were thus located within three main areas: the church, the cloister alleys and the cloister garth. The cemetery, dating from the 15th to the 18th century, shows a good spatial layout with distinguished burial plots within the walls of the church building: 96 skeletons were found there, some of them in multiple burials. 73 individuals were located in the northern and western cloister alleys, while in the cloister garth were buried 60 individuals. Many individuals had been partly, or entirely, disturbed by the intensive burial activity of the monastery, and then, following the dissolution of the monastery as well.


The position of the skeletons was predominantly on a west-east alignment, according to general Christian practice. However, several individuals from the northern cloister alley had been buried in an east-west alignment. This position was, according to written sources, reserved for clergies. Most of the individuals (90%) were buried with their arms resting on the pelvis or alongside the body, although a small group (predominantly men) was buried with the arms folded across the chest or with hands in prayer position. Strong evidence for wooden coffins was recognized for 139 burials. Some artefacts were found associated with the burial plots, but just a few of them can be linked with specific skeletons.


Biological sex was determined for 204 skeletons: 69 females and 135 males. Within the monastery church, 46% of the burials were females and 54% were males. In the cloister alleys, the ratio was 17% females versus 83% males, and in the cloister garth, 35% females and 65% males. These numbers support the information given by the written sources, stating that the clergymen were generally buried in the cloister alley.

While all age groups were represented, there is a clear underrepresentation of non-adult individuals (29 skeletons). Most women died between the ages of 20 and 40, while men tend to live longer, between 30 and 50 years. Comparison of this data with two reference populations from the Netherlands shows that Aalst population appears to have died younger on average than the others. The age group representation also varies depending on the burial location within the monastery.


Dental health was poor, with high levels of tooth decay and antemortem loss. Generally, most individuals with antemortem tooth loss and caries were buried in the cloister garth.

The most commonly found pathological condition in this population was joint diseases. Degenerative disc diseases were less frequent than in the reference population, although they were visible on 42% of the skeletons of which the vertebral column had been preserved. 56% of the adult skeletons also showed peripheral osteoarthritis. To a lesser extent, rheumatoid arthritis and gout were present in the sample. Besides joint diseases, infectious diseases were identified through the whole cemetery sample. A number of individuals with periosteal reactions was observed, as well as with osteomyelitis. One skeleton displayed lesions caused by tuberculosis. Metabolic diseases such as rickets and enamel hypoplasia were also found, as well as haematological disorders such as cribra orbitalia and hyperplasia of the diploe. Some adults (9%) showed macroscopic evidences of healed trauma.

Twelve skeletons presented diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH). The cause of this spinal column’s condition cannot be easily determined. It forms by the ossification of soft tissues, appearing like ‘flowing candlewax’ on the vertebrae. It is mostly found in males over the age of 40, even though it is still present in the female population for that age group. Such illness is common in monastic populations, such as this case study. A lifestyle of low exercise and high caloric food might constitute etiological factors, although its prevalence is not limited to religious contexts. 


Kim Quintelier and her colleagues particularly explored the links between diet, social classes and DISH, using osteological evidences from this post-medieval friary. For this matter, stable isotope ratios δ15N and δ13C were measured on 39 adult individuals from the three different burial locations at the monastery (church, cloister garth and cloister alley). The sample was carefully prepared in order to represent a mixed monastic and lay population, and to most likely reflect groups with different social status.

Results show that the isotopic values from the monastic population, buried both in the church and the cloister garth, showed similar values. There are statistically significant differences between the diets of males and females: males exhibited a greater component of terrestrial and marine animal proteins than females who, on average, had a less varied diet. Results also indicate similar dietary patterns between the monastic population and the richer lay people buried in the church. Significant differences are observed in the values between the cloister garth (which represents the lower status individuals) and the church area (corresponding to the higher status individuals). Indeed, the ‘higher’ status have significantly more marine proteins than the ‘lower’ status individuals. This clearly indicates a difference in diet.

The main question discussed in their article (cfr AJPA 153) was to whether or not the stable isotope ratios of individuals with DISH can be linked to specific dietary patterns compared to those without the condition. However, there was no statistical difference between pathological and non-pathological bones between individuals with and without DISH.

There is still room for more research on post-medieval dietary reconstruction. As the authors point out, this unbiased analysis of stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen can tell us a lot about the diet of post-medieval European populations.  Stable isotope analysis focusses on bone collagen content, but recent studies have shown that 40% of the bones collagen can come from sources other than protein. Besides macroscopic analysis of animal and plant material found on site, the isotopic signal can provide us with an overview of some individuals’ dietary input, at least in the final decade of their life.


All this anthropological information draws a picture of the burial practices and the life of those buried in the Carmelite monastery in Aalst. However, the complete churchyard was situated outside the excavated area, so only a small sample of the population has been studied.


De Groote K., Moens J. & Quintelier K., 2018. The Carmelite Monastery in Aalst (Belgium, province of East Flanders) (1497-1797). An urban burial ground in a monastic environment. In: Van Oosten R., Schats R., Fast K., Arts N. & Bouwmeester H., The Urban Graveyard. Archaeological Perspectives, Leiden: Sidestone Press (Proceedings 2): 219-238.

Quintelier K., Ervynck A., Muldner G., Van Neer W., Richards W. & Fuller B., Isotopic Examination of Links Between Diet, Social Differentiation, and DISH at the Post-Medieval Carmelite Friary of Aalst, Belgium, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 153 (2014): 203-213.

physical anthropology isotopes DISH