“We add to the abbey’s history”
As an archaeologist, Lisa Van Ransbeeck is like a kid in a candy shop at the Park Abbey. Among other things, she has searched for the remains of the old Romanesque church, to the left of the current St. John the Apostle Church. “There must be treasures in the soil here.”
City archaeologist Lisa Van Ransbeeck (34) has been working for the city of Leuven since February 2018, but had never visited the abbey until last year, although she already knew Park Abbey by name. “A friend of mine told me that this is the most beautiful place to walk. It was the work that ultimately led me here, but I’ve got to admit that it’s also a great setting for eating your lunch,” she laughs.
Researching the church
Last summer, Lisa carried out archaeological research on the church, in the garden of the Premonstratensians. “I examined the section next to the church tower. We expected to find the foundations of the old Romanesque church there. There have been several building campaigns that have always left their mark on the abbey’s appearance. The 18th-century campaign gave us the definitive look of the abbey that we know today,” says Lisa.
"There have been several building campaigns that have left their mark on the abbey’s appearance."
“One of the most striking works in that period was the adaptation of the abbey church, particularly the removal of a transept arm, among other things. It was quite risky because it entailed major construction work. These were radical structural changes, especially before the 18th century. I don’t know how shabby it was back then, but keeping up with the fashion of the times was a massive project. That’s actually applicable to any era,” she winks.
Different levels of life
Lisa and her team remove the topsoil with a crane. “Then we looked at discolouration in the soil and at foundation and wall remnants. As soon as we spot these, we start working by hand.”
“As an archaeologist, you try to expose the different levels of life in a space,” explains Lisa. “Sometimes there is a big difference, such as 40 centimetres to lay a new floor; but other times, it’s only 2 centimetres. We write down and photograph our findings, after which we continue using a trowel and brushes. We’ll dig in a burial plot until we reach the skeletons.”
"In a burial plot, we'll dig until we reach the skeletons."
Lisa did not discover the remains of the Romanesque church with certainty. “But we did actually find some burial plots, which is quite remarkable considering that the cemetery is located on the north side. But it soon became clear that there were also burials next to the church. Maybe that place was reserved for monks, staff, or others like them.”
Treasures in the soil
Lisa and her team are now investigating who was buried there. How do they do that? “We run analyses based on the bones and formulate hypotheses about gender, the age at which they died, etc.. If we find out that there are women there, it could be staff, for example. Maybe we can date them, too. This won’t be easy because eating fish can disrupt carbon dating. And with those ponds here…,” laughs Lisa.
It’s a bit creepy, isn’t it? “As an archaeologist, you’re used to that. Moreover, many archaeological studies are carried out in the context of the restoration. I am often present to seek advice, but sometimes purely out of interest. There must be treasures in the soil here,” says Lisa.
“Even the monks were impressed”
“The abbey is a uniform whole, but there are many later additions. There are precursors of all the buildings here. The church, for example, used to be a Romanesque church with a cross plan. We have old maps that give an indication of what the foundations looked like.“
“I’ve always been interested in how things used to be,” continues Lisa. “The combination of the material, the detailed stories instead of the general outlines… Our work provides a direct link to everyday life. We also add to the abbey’s history. That’s why the monks came to see us a number of times during the works. Even they were impressed – our work puts everything into perspective,” she concludes.