The ancient practice of building ossuaries - housing skeletal remains when cemeteries were overcrowded - was common in medieval Europe
Belgium, a tourist hotspot full of fortresses, cathedrals, and history museums, has discovered a wall made of skeletons in Saint-Bavo’s cathedral in Ghent, a medieval city in the northwest region of the country.
Saint-Bavo’s cathedral is a gothic 10th century building that survived both the first and second world wars. Workers building a new visitors’ centre at the cathedral stumbled upon a grim discovery: walls literally made of hundreds of human bones and shattered skulls .
Archaeologists said that the bones most likely came from a graveyard outside the church. The practice of building ossuaries – housing skeletal remains when cemeteries were overcrowded – was not uncommon in medieval Europe.
“Given that the faithful believed in a resurrection of the body, the bones were considered the most important part,” project leader, Janiek De Gryse told the Brussel Times.
“That is why stone houses were sometimes built against the walls of city graveyards: to house skulls and the long bones in what is called an ossuary.”
Archeologists found out that the bones belonged to adult humans, with the wall made of their thigh bones, shin bones, and a number of shattered skulls. Adult skeletal remains were used because these bones are stronger to hold up the walls. Children’s bones and other fragile bones were not used in the construction of the gothic wall.
“When clearing graves, people often hurried and did not bother collecting smaller or fragile bones such as vertebrae, ribs, bones from hands and feet. So a selection of skulls and long bones emerged,” DeGryse said.
De Gryse also said that these bones will be removed from the wall and the discovery will not be made into a tourist attraction.
Moving human bones from one place to another, maintaining, and displaying them was a way to honour the dead in medieval Europe. The Catacombs of Paris are one of the most renowned ossuaries holding the remains of over 6 million people. Moreover, one of the largest and best preserved ossuaries in Europe is the St Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent containing about 4000 dead people.