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Medieval Bone Hoarders in St Nicholas' Parish - Field Trip!

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

At the end of September, project researchers Veronica Jackson and Rachèl Spros had the opportunity to visit an archaeological excavation in the city centre of Ypres. The site of the excavation, between the present-day Appèlstraat and Stationsstraat, was situated just within the city’s thirteenth-century ramparts. Veronica and Rachèl were shown around by Olivier van Remoorter of BAAC, the archaeology and architectural history company that conducted the excavation.

BAAC archaeologists working on site. Photo by Veronica Jackson

Over the course of three weeks, the BAAC archaeologists found the remains of a house, including fragments of floors and hearths, and two ovens. They also discovered a storage place with hundreds of neatly stacked cow mandibles. This find was probably related to the activities of candle and/or ointment makers. Historical sources describe how these bones were cut and heated so the marrow would seep out. That marrow was subsequently used to make candles and ointments. All of this can be dated loosely from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries.

Interestingly for us, the excavation site was located only 200m away from the St Nicholas churchyard, where the c. 1,200 skeletons that are now the focus of the Make-Up of the City project were unearthed. Could the excavated floors and walls have sheltered some of the individuals under study in our labs or could these hearths have kept them warm? The site fell within the medieval parish of St Nicholas, but as candle and/or ointment makers, they may also have frequented a chapel in a different church in the city. Unfortunately, there are no historical sources that describe about the places used by this particular craft group for religious practice (and burial).

St Nicholas and the BAAC excavation, shown on a 16th century plan of the city. Map provided by the Yper Museum

We very much look forward to reading BAAC’s ultimate interpretation of the many compelling finds seen on site. We would like to thank everyone involved in facilitating both our visit and the sharing of information across disciplines. If you would like to learn more about BAAC and receive updates on their latest projects, you can follow them at

This post was edited 28/10/2020 to amend the location of BAAC's excavation on the map.

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