Weekend Ramblings: Tournai and Ghent

On two Saturdays during the project, students go on staff-led field trips to significant medieval sites around Belgium. Last week we visited three castles, but you didn’t hear about it due to a lack of effective human/computer cooperation. That write up may show itself in the next few days. Yesterday, we set out into the typical Belgian July drizzle to visit the cathedral cities of Tournai and Ghent. WSP’s very own Laurent Verslype is one of the primary archaeologists who has been working in Tournai since the 1980s excavating Roman, Merovingian, Carolingian, and later medieval sites, particularly those associated with the cathedral. Laurent led us on a tour of medieval sites, beginning at St. Brice church.

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The church contains both Romanesque and Gothic features, and was built near the old Roman road and a Merovingian cemetery. Just next to the church, beneath the cobble-stone street and the row of 17th-century houses, lies the tomb of Childeric. Childeric, along with his beautiful grave goods, was discovered when the row houses were built, and the gold and garnet treasure was eventually given to Louis XIV. Thankfully, this collection was drawn in detail, because in 1831 it was stolen and has never been found. The tomb was excavated by the CRAN in the 1980s.

From St. Brice we walked toward the river and the center of medieval Tournai. On our way we saw two of the oldest medieval homes in Belgium, built in the 12th century. They are identifiable from the street by the orientation of their gables and the size of the stones used (also, they look really old). Nearby is a house built a century or so later. It features larger, more cleanly cut and dressed stones and its roof line is parallel to the street.

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After crossing the river we headed for the medieval belfry, built near the cathedral by the town’s civil power, perhaps to remind everyone that the church hierarchy wasn’t the only game in town.

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After climbing the belfry, the group went to the impressive cathedral. The cathedral was constructed in many phases. Significantly, the 4-story Romanesque nave that we see today was built on top of an earlier Carolingian church, which in turn had replaced a Merovingian site. When the new church was built, they decided to raise the ground level and so buried the foundations of the earlier edifices rather than destroying them completely, leaving an exciting project for 20th-century archaeologists.

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The archaeological report on the site was published in 4 volumes in the last couple of years – very exciting stuff. We were able to look into the open excavations and get a quick explanation from the lead archaeologist himself (that would be Laurent) before getting a backstage tour of the Gothic transept. The cathedral is undergoing significant restoration on the roof and two of its towers, and so much of it is currently unavailable to the public. Laurent showed us Gothic columns that were installed when they widened the nave in the 13th century. Unfortunately, the church became unstable soon after the construction, and so on one side the builders were forced to destroy the arches they’d just recently completed to adjust. To do that, they also had to widen the columns.

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There is a lot to see in Tournai – the cathedral alone could take half a day – but we needed to move on to the bustling commercial city of Ghent. To get a sense of the city’s 1000-year history on a rainy day, we spent a couple of hours getting a private tour of the impressive museum. The museum is housed in medieval Cistercian abbey to which has been added an ultra-modern wing that features a really attention-getting opening exhibit.

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On the floor is spread a huge, high-res image of the city and around it are interactive digital maps that allow visitors to explore its spatial history. The museum is arranged chronologically, and the collection is really impressive. There’s a lot to see, from carved stones and woodwork to charters and illuminated books. There is even a wolf’s paw, a relic of a time when the Count of Flanders paid a bounty to those who could prove they had killed a wolf by bringing in its paw (front right, I think?). The paw was then nailed to the door of the castle to show that wolf problem was being addressed.  This paw is the only one that’s been found in a museum collection.

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The building itself is a large artifact, and one room that was part of the abbey contains original medieval wall paintings.

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Nothing could top the wolf’s paw, so we headed back to LLN to enjoy a Sunday off before beginning what should be a productive week at the site on Monday.

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