Multidisciplinary investigation of a Mesolithic wetland site (2015-2019)

Large-scale, multidisciplinary investigation of a Mesolithic wetland site in the floodplain of the Upper Scheldt at Kerkhove.

Archaeological coring surveys conducted in 2007-2008 in the floodplain of the Upper Scheldt River led to the discovery of a stratified multiperiod wetland site at the locality of Kerkhove. The surveys revealed the presence of a deeply buried and elongated levee ( >450 m length) running parallel to the Scheldt and flanked by a ca. 8m deep palaeochannel. In the top of the levee small archaeological remains, such as lithic artifacts (chips, flakes, bladelets, etc.), burnt and unburnt bone fragments and plant remains (e.g. carbonized hazelnut shells), were found in the drilled soil samples that yielded prehistoric occupations probably dating to the Mesolithic. In the covering peat layers finds of handmade pottery, lithics and animal bones point to activities dating back to the Neolithic, while ceramics (and at one location even a burnt feature) found at the top of the peat and the transition towards the above-lying organic clay provide evidence for human activities during the Roman and maybe also Early Medieval periods. These drilled finds clearly indicate the intensive use of the levee and later marshland probably in connection with settlements situated on the adjacent dry river bank. Indeed, large-scale excavations on the dry bank conducted from the 1970s till the mid of the 1990s have revealed settlement evidence, however in an unstratified position, dating back to the Mesolithic, the Neolithic (LBK, Michelsberg and Bell Beaker Cultures), the Iron Age, the Roman period and the Early Medieval periods. These remains demonstrate an almost continuous use of the dry riverbank over a span of at least 10,000 years.

Due to the planned renewal of a lock in the floodplain area of Kerkhove, the drilled wetland site is currently threatened by partial destruction. Prior to its destruction a large-scale, interdisciplinary salvage excavation is conducted between 2015 and 2017 by a consortium of the UGent and its spin-of Gate (Ghent Archaeological Team).

The planned project is undoubtedly exceptional not only within Belgium but also western Europe due to its size and its large archaeological and palaeoenvironmental potential. This project deviates from a standard excavation due to 1° its deep position four to eight meters under the actual surface and underneath peat and alluvial sediments, 2° by its unique preservation in continuous wet conditions, and 3° by the large area which needs to be investigated (ca. 8000 m²). The particular context of the site calls for a specific approach, which includes deep draining to continuously lower the ground water table, heavy excavation equipment (30T hydraulic excavators and dump trucks), and strict safety measures.

The excavations at Kerkhove provide a unique opportunity to study the human use of a marshy riverine environment during both prehistoric and historic periods. The waterlogged environment guarantees a good to excellent preservation of the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains dating from several periods. In addition the analysis of various organic remains, such as pollen, plant macroremains, wood, charcoal, mosses, preserved in long continuous channel sequences will provide continuous high-resolution palaeoenvironmental information for the last 12,000 years, i.e. from the Late Glacial onwards.

More information on the Kerkhove project.


Prof Dr Philippe Crombé

Dr Joris Sergant

Drs Hans Vandendriessche