Exposing hidden transitions: Integrating strontium and radiocarbon data from archaeological cremated bone within the Belgian landscape

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis


“You are what you eat” is often said to guilt people into better eating habits. Although
this may sound like hollow words, we are in fact built up of the chemical elements we
ingest throughout our lives and in a materialistic sense we indeed consist of what we
eat. This dissertation focuses on the study of the chemical element strontium in the
archaeological human skeleton, building on several decades of experience with the
method on inhumated remains. As part of the CRUMBEL project, this study could
examine the first largescale strontium dataset on Belgian cremated remains.
Strontium exists in several variations (or isotopes) in the environment. Plants take
up the element and disseminate it further into the food chain in living organisms. The
ratio of strontium isotopes (⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr), however, varies from region to region,
predominantly influenced by the underlying geology. Typical ratios of strontium
isotopes therefore differ in individuals from different regions who live of the
surrounding land. When they move, they may display a divergent strontium isotope
ratio from the new environment. Therefore, using this method, it is possible to study
mobility in humans.
Since the creation of the dataset was a team effort, a large amount of samples could
be processed. As such, this study started with assessing the Belgian archaeological
cremated remains from the Final Neolithic to Early Medieval period, so that an optimal
selection, well-spread in time and space, could be made. This equal spread was not
evident, since the prevalence of the cremation practice fluctuated over time, with a
much larger occurrence in Metal Ages and Roman period.
In the second part, the influence of the diet on the resulting strontium signature was
further examined. Not only the typical strontium isotope ratios, but also the amount (or
concentration) of strontium present in the skeleton can be very telling about the
dietary composition. Due to its long chronology from Late Bronze Age up to Roman
period, the site of Destelbergen was crucial in these studies. First, a differential diet with
more meat was seen in individuals of higher status in the Early Iron Age, which was not
determined in Late Bronze Age individuals. Although Late Bronze and Early Iron Age
funerary rites seem culturally continuous, this was one of the subtle differences
observed. Next, a very clear shift in strontium signature between Metal Ages and Gallo-
Roman individuals was seen. These differences most likely are the effect of a higher salt
consumption in the Roman period.
The final part of the dissertation aimed to develop new and rather experimental
methods to handle large strontium datasets, to be able to study populations instead of
individuals. A first method tries to answer when and where the presence of rivers
influenced mobility. A second method expands on existing methods designed to
determine the region of origin of an individual, and does the same for groups of
individuals using network analysis. Another application helps to point out where and
when groups of individuals were more alike in strontium isotope ratio, highlighting
potential food trade networks.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Ghent University
  • De Mulder, Guy, Supervisor, External person
  • Snoeck, Christophe, Co-Supervisor
Award date15 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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