The oldest skull in Flanders was discovered in Enam.

The oldest skull in Flanders was discovered in Enam.

In 2003, in the East Flemish city of Enem, a sub-municipality of Oudenaarde, the Scheldt was being excavated to build a dam. Amateur archaeologist Jean-Pierre Parent went to have a look and discovered some prehistoric objects. An emergency excavation was immediately organised, which uncovered numerous well-preserved human and animal remains and vessels dating from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. After the excavation, everything was quickly stored in several locations awaiting further investigation.

After about twenty years, the Ename Heritage Site team is preparing a new exhibition and bringing the collection from the Ename Dam back together in their heritage repository. The regional archaeologists on the team immediately realized that human skeletal material from that era was extremely rare and immediately had it examined by specialists using the latest technology.

Professor Isabelle de Groot from the Department of Archaeology at Ghent University – who was also involved in the search for Judith of Flanders – and her colleague Professor Philip Crombie took care of the human remains. Anton Ervink and Anne Lintaker from the Immovable Heritage Agency were contacted to obtain the animal bones. “They were immediately enthusiastic and were able to identify all the bones in their free time,” says Anne Vervliet, deputy for heritage affairs. “Thanks to them, ten additional human remains were uncovered among the animal material.”

14 remains of 9 people

De Groote conducted DNA and isotope analysis, C14 dating and CT scanning. She also subjected the teeth to extensive analysis. The samples even went to Durham University for DNA extraction and to Korea for reading.

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The research revealed that the Ename Weir collection contains fourteen human skeletal remains from three periods of the Neolithic Age, the period of the first farmers. The oldest remains date from the period of the Michelsberg culture (ca. 4300-3800 BC), and the youngest from the Terminal Neolithic – a period of large-scale migrations from southeastern Europe, more specifically the region north of the Black Sea.

This discovery was exceptional for the region of Flanders, where very little of the Neolithic has been recovered so far. “The study of the skeletal remains showed that it involved at least nine different individuals – men, women and children,” says de Groot. “The skull, which was registered as ‘Skull No. 100,’ was very impressive.” It belonged to a man who was at least 35 years old when he died. The skull is approximately 4,400 years old, making it the oldest almost complete skull found in Flanders to date.

It is not entirely clear how exactly these human remains arrived at the site. “One hypothesis is that they came from disturbed graves, built in or near a settlement,” says De Groot. The latter is confirmed by numerous traces of use on pottery and stone vessels, studied by Hans Vandendriesch and Dimitri Tetert of the Immovable Heritage Agency.

This discovery is truly exceptional for Flanders, because due to the generally acidic and dry subsoil of Flanders, only a few prehistoric human and animal skeletal remains have been preserved. The limestone environment of the Scheldt River may have played a role in this. “Every discovery is an asset to knowledge in Flanders,” says Crombie. “What we have found here proves that there is still great potential in Flemish river valleys to discover organic remains from prehistoric times. They can provide us with further insights into the way of life of our ancestors.

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Diverse diet

Detailed examination of the skulls and other skeletal parts has already given researchers many insights. Isotope analysis and the appearance of the teeth, among other things, have shown that these people had a varied diet. “They ate agricultural crops, fish and local meats like beef, but they also ate wild food sources,” says de Groot.

What is striking is the complete absence of signs of stress or malnutrition. However, these indicators are often observed in Neolithic peoples, such as in the Meuse Valley, and are associated with crop failure, high population density and living close to animals. “These people appear to be healthy,” says Professor De Groot. “This is atypical of what we typically associate with these early farmers.”

The teeth show wear, possibly from chewing on small pieces of stone from the grinding stone. This refers to eating ground grains in porridge, cakes or bread for example. Besides the lack of cavities, this also indicates a varied diet.

Come and watch!

The skull will be a highlight of the new permanent exhibition at the Ename regional heritage site at Lorharingenstraat 1 in Ename, which talks about heritage management in general and Ename in particular. It will be open on the weekend of Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 July. More information can be found at www.erfgoedsiteEname.be.

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