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A bone wall was discovered at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium

Skeletons in the Closet: Walls of Bones Discovered Beneath Cathedral


Walls constructed of human bones and skulls have been discovered beneath a Belgium cathedral.

The nine walls composed of bones and shattered human skulls were discovered by archaeologists while excavating the grounds of a Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, ahead of construction for a new visitor's center at the cathedral.

Ruben Willaert of Restoration & Archeology/Decoration, the Dutch company that found the walls, told The Brussels Times that they were largely constructed from “stacked adult human thigh and shin bones” and that the intermediate zones were filled with “fragmented human skulls”.

A Controversial Cathedral With Skeletons In Its Closet

The human bone walls were discovered beneath the north side of the cathedral, formerly known as the Chapel of St. John the Baptist which was originally a small wooden construction consecrated in 942 AD by Transmarus, Bishop of Tournai and Noyon. A later Romanesque structure gave way to the construction of a Gothic church around 1274 AD and between the 14th through 16th centuries a new choir, radiating chapels, transepts expansions, a chapter house, nave aisles, and a tower were added to the religious super structure.

St. Bavo’s Cathedral where the bone walls were discovered

St. Bavo’s Cathedral where the bone walls were discovered. (Moody 75 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The cathedral is perhaps most famous for holding Hubert and Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece) which is considered to be a masterpiece and one of the most important works of the early Northern Renaissance. It is also one of the greatest artistic masterpieces of Belgium, but The Guardian recently called it “the most stolen artwork of all time”.

The church where the bone walls were found is famous for the Ghent Altarpiece

The church where the bone walls were found is famous for the Ghent Altarpiece. (Zen3500 / Public Domain)

There Was No More Room At The Inn

Radiocarbon dating of the bones, which form the walls, indicated the people had died in the latter half of the 15th century. However, the bone walls were likely constructed in the 17th or early 18th centuries, said archaeologist Janiek De Gryse, who is the excavation project leader for Ruben Willaert. Notes found in historical documents confirmed the dating saying the church's cemetery had been cleared during the first half of the 16th century and again, after 1784, at which time it stopped accepting new cadavers.

Bone walls were built in the St. Bavo’s Cathedral from remains removed from the church’s cemetery

Bone walls were built in the St. Bavo’s Cathedral from remains removed from the church’s cemetery. (VISITFLANDERS / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Live Science article says these “ghastly structures” were likely the work of people who, many centuries ago, had cleared out an old graveyard making space for new bodies, or perhaps during a renovation project. When clearing a churchyard, “the skeletons cannot just be thrown away,” de Gryse told Live Science, in an email, and the archaeologist added that the walls were “a one-of-a-kind find” and that nothing similar has ever been discovered in Belgium before.

A Wall Of Medieval Doomsday Preppers

As to why the bones were built into a wall and not simply thrown away, Christians believe in the resurrection of their own physical bodies upon the return of their risen master, Jesus Christ, and one’s leg bones are an essential part of their comeback plans. Therefore, great monies were paid to churches for the safeguarding of human remains which was so important that sometimes the rich paid for ossuaries (stone houses) in graveyard walls to house their skulls and longer bones.

Vertebrae bones, ribs, hands, and feet did not make it into the ossuaries or into the bone walls, and curiously, archaeologists haven't found any arm bones, either. The lead archaeologist said that they are still examining the circumstances that caused the building of the nine bone walls and while the reason might be religious or spiritual, whoever made the walls “must have been in a hurry,” because the builder hadn’t bothered to collect the smaller bones.

After the excavations are complete the bone walls will be moved, one by one, to University of Ghent, where they will be examined in detail and logged in an inventory, said de Gryse. And somewhat demystifying the walls, putting the discovery of thousands of bones in context, the finding is comparable to the famous Catacombs of Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million dead people.

Bone wall in the Catacombs of Paris

Bone wall in the Catacombs of Paris. (Djtox / Public Domain)

Like the newly discovered bone walls, the Paris ossuary remained largely forgotten until it became a venue for concerts and private parties in the early 19th century, before being opened to the public from 1874. Since 2013, the catacombs have been one of the 14 city of Paris museums managed by Paris Musées. Maybe the bone walls of Ghent Cathedral will one day make a darkly themed tourist attraction, until they rise again of course…

Top image: A bone wall was discovered at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Source: garrykillian / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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