Dig in Wielsbeke turns up Bronze Age burial site

Summary

A 3,500-year-old cemetery has been unearthed in West Flanders that was in use for an unprecedented period of time

Surprise discovery

An unexpected archaeological site has been found during construction of a business park in Wielsbeke, West Flanders. Archaeologists dug up the remains of three Bronze Age burial mounds and smaller graves from a later period. The whole site spans a period of 2,000 years.

Local councillor Magda Depree was stunned. For years, she and her husband have worked this land as farmers, with no idea that there was an archaeological site under their feet.

Sam De Decker is an archaeologist at the Flemish government’s heritage agency. “In the 15 years I’ve been working as an archaeologist, I’ve never seen a find of such value. It’s not just the size; the fact that people were buried here over a 2,000-year period is unprecedented.”

It requires imagination to visualise it, but three mounds once stood here, two circles and an oval. The largest measured 35 x 17 metres. The mounds date from the Bronze Age, about 1,500 BC and served as a tomb for a single person.

At a later stage, at the beginning of the Iron Age, small square graves were dug around the manmade hills. A few tombs from this period were filled with gifts such as ceramics and glassware, indicating trade links with the rest of Europe. Later, ashes would be buried in urns.

“A community has probably been burying its dead here for two millennia,” says De Decker. “There may be gaps in their presence, but the mounds must have been visible to the people of later ages. Nowhere else in Flanders have we found such a long continuation.” 

Analyse everything

Every major construction project in Flanders requires a routine archaeological sweep before it can begin. But the discovery came as a complete surprise. 

The fact that people were buried here over 2,000 years is unprecedented

- Sam De Decker

“We never suspected that there was something in the ground here,” says De Decker. “We couldn’t see the circles on aerial photos. But given the proximity of the river Leie – important for trade in that period – and the fertile farmland, it was likely that there would be something. The trial excavations were  promising enough for us to examine the whole area.”

The fieldwork is finished, but the actual work starts now, says Maarten Brakke, archaeologist at Group M, the company that carried out the excavations. “Now we will analyse everything,” he says. “The skeletal remains, the offerings, the pollen... It will give us a better picture of how people lived here and how the region looked.” That work is expected to take more than a year.

Eventually, the site will become part business park, part sports centre, though construction is delayed while archaeologists do their work. Because of potential delays, these mandatory archaeological surveys are not always appreciated or understood. Which is a pity, according to De Decker.

“The results here show that there are still very valuable things to be found in the ground. Archaeology is not a burden but tells a story about our ancestors and, ultimately, about our own identity.”

Photo (c) Toon Lambrechts