Tracking (post-)medieval agricultural (r)evolution using size and shape in cattle

This archaeozoological study takes on the historical debate about the timing and characteristics of the (post-)medieval Agricultural Revolution in the southern Low Countries, by using shape and size in archaeological cattle bones and teeth. By making use of a combination of 3D-scanning and geometric morphometrics on a large series of molars and mandibles, the origins, pace and nature of the Agricultural Revolution is tracked for this region. Complementary oxygen and strontium isotope analyses on a subsample of teeth give further insight into cattle mobility across different stages of their life and can pinpoint the provenance of new types of improved breeds. This project is funded by FWO Flanders.


Mobility and Life histories in the Alps – Understanding prehistoric social strategies in mountain environment

Several hundred sites dating from the 5th to the 2nd millennia BC have been identified in the eastern Italian Alps making them one of the best archaeologically mapped regions among the European mountains. However, despite the large amount of residential and productive prehistoric sites, only few funerary contexts have been unearthed, and even fewer human remains have been studied using state of the art bioarchaeology (e.g., isotope analyses, DNA, etc.). Prehistoric burials found in the eastern Italian Alps represent a unique and exceptional source of information that can provide crucial knowledge on past human mobility and life histories in mountain environment. During this 4,000-year time span an increase of social complexity and an intensification of exchange networks are documented in this region, a buffer zone between the Mediterranean and the central Europe, crossed by major north-south routes (Adige-Eisack valleys), that implied an intensive movement of people, objects, and ideas.

The EU-funded MOLA project aims to integrate Alpine Landscape Archaeology with state-of-the-art bioarchaeology and spatial modeling to understand how social strategies influenced human mobility and life histories from the Neolithic to the end of the Bronze Age in mountain environment with a particular focus on the eastern Italian Alps. To achieve this research goal an innovative methodology based on the combined analysis of strontium (87Sr/86Sr), oxygen (δ18O) and sulfur (δ34S) isotope ratios in prehistoric cremated (87Sr/86Sr only) and inhumed human remains from the area and period under study is used. Additionally, a high-resolution bioavailable strontium isoscape will be developed by sampling modern vegetation in the eastern Italian Alps and local S baselines will be produced using archaeological faunal remains. These data will be coupled with data from Landscape Archaeology of the uplands on human-environment interactions (stratigraphic excavations, surveys, geomorphology, etc.) to shed light on social strategies and possible gender differences behind individual and collective mobility and life histories in the eastern Italian Alps during the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic, and the Bronze Age.


BIOarchaeology of SOCIO–POLitical changes in AmphipolIS: Exploring the impact of broad historical trends and status quo transitions on human lifeways and deathways, through a multi-proxy approach 

BIOSOCIOPOLIS aims to develop a new understanding of how multiple socio-political transitions representing different forms of urbanism (e.g., colonization, political autonomy, consolidation and imperialization) may impact lifeways and deathways across a diachronic scale. This is accomplished through a combination of theoretical, macroscopic and geo-chemical approaches, both destructive and non-destructive. The diachronic case of ancient Amphipolis (currently located in the modern regional unit of Serres, Macedonia, northern Greece) experienced many different political models between the Late Archaic/Classical and Roman periods, and thus was chosen as an ideal illustrative case study. This project is funded through a European individual Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship.

Hidden by fire

Understanding the post-processing of the dead prior to cremation

Cremation was one of the dominant funerary rites before the rise of Christianity in Europe. Thus, in many prehistoric assemblages the treatment of the dead prior to cremation is invisible to archaeologists, due to the drastic series of changes bone goes through when heated. Many archaeologists propose the presence of excarnation before cremation in Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age Europe, mostly based on macroscopic observations, such as heat-induced fracturing, and modern analogues in SE Asia. This work aims to determine the time between death and cremation by studying the diagenetic changes bone goes through in different environments and the thermal stability of bioapatite. Previous work by the researcher identified a trace element [potassium(K)]in bone from the extracellular fluid that steadily decreases through decomposition and survives burning. By examining the presence of K in bone, I hope to identify the time elapsed since death, possibly down to a few months. Novel analytical methods are used to study the structural and chemical changes to bone during diagenesis and burning, comparing archaeological samples to synthetic apatite with common 'real' substitutions. The results of this study would confirm the existence of the debated post-processing of the dead prior to cremation and allow the identification of the spatial dispersion, variations and possibly the origin of these pre-cremation practices.


River Deep Mountain High

Passageways or Obstacles within the Southern Carpathian Basin? 

Mobility is a central feature of past human societies. The Southern Carpathian Basin, located in modern day Croatia and Serbia, has an archaeological material record highlighting rich networks of trade, exchange and influences within and beyond the region. The physical geography of the basin; its vast river network including the Danube, the Sava and the Drava rivers, and the surrounding mountain ranges of the Alps, Carpathians, and Dinaric Alps, provide an excellent opportunity to study the impact of these features on mobility. In this project, the mobility of individuals in the Southern Carpathian Basin, from the Bronze Age, the Iron Age to the Roman Period, will be investigated diachronologically using strontium isotope analysis on both inhumation and cremations alongside chronological modelling of funerary practices and spatial analyses. This holistic approach enables the investigation of the role of the physical environment (mountains and rivers) in creating passageways or obstacles to human mobility.


COnnecting the LIving and the DEad through ancient and present cremation practices to create compassionate communities

Cremations occur worldwide and have a long history. A thorough understanding of both past and present cremation practices and rituals is still lacking. Several scholars highlight the need for an interdisciplinary approach that combines archaeology and sociology to strengthen the ability for future caring of individuals and communities, ultimately contributing to the creation of compassionate communities where members experiencing loss are supported. This project responds to this need by broadening the understanding of past and present cremation practices and rituals, comparing them, and identifying how interdisciplinary synergies can help create compassionate communities. At first, ancient cremation sites in the Belgian region, dating from the Metal Age and Roman period, are being investigated through geochemical analyses on cremated human remains to understand who was cremated and how. In the subsequent phase, descriptive and explanatory research on contemporary cremation practices and rituals is carried out on adults to unravel what gives people meaning in death. This leads to a re-evaluation of hypotheses about the past and a comprehensive history of cremation practices in Belgium. In the last phase, archaeology and sociology are combined to reach and create compassionate communities. This project will thus generate innovative theoretical knowledge that enables a better understanding of the who and how of cremation practices and rituals in a compassionate community.

Medieval urban agricultural land use in Flanders and Brabant (6th-13th centuries AD)

Medieval urban agricultural land use in Flanders and Brabant (6th-13th centuries AD): phytolith research as a novel tool for the understanding of cultivated soils in towns

This proposal focuses on medieval agricultural urban land use in Flanders and Brabant. The overarching goal is to answer longstanding questions on the role and practice of agriculture in medieval town development. On the one hand, the project aims to investigate the cultivated crops on urban medieval fieldson one hand, and soil intensification processes on the other. In addition, the spatial evolution of these urban fields is investigated to contribute to our understanding of medieval urbanization processes. The methods used derive from archaeobotany and geoarchaeology. Phytolith research (the investigation of microskeletons of plant tissues) and micromorphological research (the study of thin sections of undisturbed soils and sediments under the microscope) are applied. The project is innovative from a methodological perspective as well as from an archaeological one. It is the first study that will systematically combine two complementary methods: 1) the study of extracted phytoliths from bulk samples, which is a traditional method used in phytolith research; 2) the study of phytoliths in soil thinsections, a less frequently applied method with many benefits. From an archaeological perspective, the study will contribute new data from these archaeological sciences to the research of medieval urbanism and urban agriculture fields that have previously predominantly been studied based on historical datasets.

Prehistoric societies in the mirror of mobility

The case of the Late Bronze Age in north-eastern France based on strontium isotopic analyses

Between 2200 and 800 BC, the European Bronze Age is a major historical moment, at the interface of agropastoral and proto-urban societies. Culturally, at that time, northern France is split in two at Ile-de-France along a north-south axis, with Atlantic-Channel-North Sea influences in the west and Middle Rhine influences in the east. Those influences are expressed through material culture and funerary practices. By the end of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1300 BC), the boundary between the two cultural affinities shifts with a progression of eastern influences to the west (Peake et al., 2017).

Issues related to the movement of populations and intercommunity exchange become crucial to understand the structures of the societies studied. This thesis focuses on the study of the mobility of people, men, women, and children, based on corpus dated from the end of the Middle Bronze Age to the initial stage of the Final Bronze Age (1400-1100 B.C.) and on a geographical area corresponding to northeastern France. For the first time in France, on this period, a new approach is being implemented, that of studying mobility based on cremated archaeo-osteological material. The aim is to characterize the mobility of individuals from different archaeological contexts by identifying local and non-local subjects through the analysis of strontium ratios. The finality of this doctoral research is thus to apprehend the question of mobility and contacts between human groups, all essential elements that will allow a better understanding of the structuring and the social and economic organization of Bronze Age societies in France.

The Truth in the Tooth

 Reconstructing and Comparing Human Life Histories in the Mesolithic and Neolithic of Europe. 

Isotopic analyses have cemented themselves as an important tool within the archaeological field. Their application to human remains has revolutionised our understanding of the diets and migration patterns of past populations, especially those dating to the European Mesolithic and Neolithic, where no written record is available. However, methodologies are confined to certain limiting parameters. Most notably, it is the common representation of an individual’s isotopic record from a singular sample, and, as such, a unique moment in their lives. This limitation implies that diet and geographic inhabitancy is consistent through life, and consequently, is unable to detect variations in consumption or mobility that would be expected over a lifetime.

To overcome these constraints, this project utilises and refines multisampling techniques applied to human teeth and bone, enabling changes in isotopic (C, N, O, Sr) values to be mapped over a sequenced period of life. Incremental sampling of teeth enables the tracking of serial isotopic values at a high resolution, which, when combined with microscopy and µCT, will create detailed biographical accounts of individual diets and mobility patterns. Together, these techniques will be applied to Mesolithic and Neolithic individuals from important multi-period sites. This will not only reconstruct life histories during these periods, but reveal how life in Europe may have altered with the sociocultural transition to the Neolithic.

FWO Fundamental Research Doctoral Fellowship. 


Creating the optimal bioavailable strontium Isoscape for environmental, forensic and archaeological studies in Belgium

Various plant sample types will be analyzed and different plant growing experiments will be conducted to study the impact of fertilizers, pollution, and sea-spray on the biologically available strontium of plants, and how this affects (ancient) human and animal strontium isotope values. The aim is to include all these parameters and variables into an innovative dynamic isoscape using various modelling techniques.

Death and Fire

Investigating changes and specialisation in cremation practices in Belgium during the Metal Ages

The aim of this project is to combine ethnographical evidence, experimental archaeology, and state of the art analytical techniques to assess changes in the way cremation was carried out in Belgium and beyond from the Early Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age with a particular focus on the skills and specialisation of the cremator(s) (i.e. the person(s) carrying out the cremation). Understanding differences within and between archaeological sites represent a fundamental part of this project as it enables the study of the evolution of cremation funerary practices through time and space.


Interaction between bioarchaeological and geochemical research for the analysis of burned human remains from forensic and archaeological contexts.

This project aims to combine different bioarcheological and geochemical methods to increase the rates of correctly sexed and aged calcined human remains from archaeological and forensic contexts. 

Former Projects

Indigenous-led investigations of ancient lithic resource use in the Pacific Northwest

Rhy’s post-doctoral research is focused on conducting extensive field work and laboratory analyses with Indigenous partners as part of a two-year post-doctoral fellowship focused on overcoming the paucity of information on archaeological toolstone sources and ancient raw material procurement strategies in the Pacific Northwest of North America.

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