Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Liesbeth Troubleyn; Frank Kinnaer; Anton Ervynck; Luk Beeckmans; Danielle Caluwé; Brigitte Cooremans; Frans De Buyser; Koen Deforce; Konjev Desender; An Lentacker; Jan Moens; Gaston Van Bulck; Maarten Van Dijck; Wim Van Neer; Werner Wouters: Consumption patterns and living conditions inside Het Steen, the late medieval prison of Malines (Mechelen, Belgium)

2 The building remains

At the north-eastern corner of the present square, a complex of robbed foundations and remnants of brick walls was found along the remains of a 6 m wide street. The former had a width of 1.5 to 1.8 m and were filled with small fragments of sandstone (fig. 4 & fig. 5: 1). Together, they form a square with inner sides of approximately 6 by 6 m. Below these features, a smaller foundation trench was found (1.15 m width), filled with yellow sand (fig. 5: 2). This layer of sand must have been laid out as a solid base upon which sandstone walls of about 1.15 m thick were erected. This thickness of the walls suggests a large building, probably a tower taking into account the square building plan. Next to the tower foundations, two robbed foundations of connected sandstone walls were found, belonging to a cellar (fig. 5: 2). Details about this external construction, i.e., about the building to which this cellar belonged, are not available.

In the centre of the ground plan of the tower, a shallow pit was excavated, containing a large quantity of (small) bones and shells (fig. 5: 4). This pit had been cut through a thin layer of sandstone fragments and particles of chalk mortar, most probably representing the construction phase of the tower (fig. 5: 3). The shallow pit was itself covered by layers of sediment, which must have formed the base of a later floor within the tower (fig. 5: 5 & 6). Assuming that the shallow pit contained food refuse deposited during or shortly after the building activities of the tower, a radiocarbon date of the animal remains from its fill could provide a construction date. The result (KIA 31713: 820 ± 25 BP) has a rather wide range: between 1165 and 1265 (95% probability) or 1205-1260 (68% probability). This range could, however, be narrowed by a terminus post quem, given the observation that one of the tower’s foundations had been cut through the fill of a pit containing material from the first quarter of the 13th century (1200-1225, see Troubleyn et al. 2007 for justification of all pottery dates put forward) (fig. 5: 7). Moreover, the thin layer of sandstone fragments and particles of chalk mortar (fig. 5: 3) contained fragments of pottery belonging to the second half of the 13th century. Combining this information, a building date for the tower shortly after the middle of the 13th century seems most likely (phase 1).


Fig. 4 Remains of Het Steen, phase 1 (1: robbed foundation trenches of the tower; 2: cellar walls; 3: excavated 13th-century road surface; 4: reconstructed 13th-century road surface).


Fig. 5 Section through the tower (1: robbed foundation trenches; 2: sand layer as lowest part of the foundations; 3: layer with construction debris; 4: pit with consumption refuse, cutting through 3; 5 & 6: layers deposited as base for the tower’s floor; 7: refuse pit pre-dating the construction of the tower).

The sediments covering the shallow pit (fig. 5: 5 & 6) contained ceramics roughly dating to the third quarter of the 13th century. The two cesspits, the contents of which are the subject of this paper, had been cut through these layers (fig. 6: 5 & 6: the cesspits are not visible in this section). The western structure (‘cesspit 2’) measured 2 by 2 m, the eastern one (‘cesspit 4’) 2 by 3 m. In their fills, material mainly from the early 14th century was found. Most probably, simultaneously with the construction of the cesspits, the sandstone cellar located outside the tower was enlarged with brick walls (fig. 6: 2). Cesspits and cellar walls, representing building phase 2, both showed bricks of the same dimensions (28 cm length). In fact, although the building materials and stratigraphic position suggest that the two cesspits were built at the same time, this cannot be proven beyond doubt. However, the contents of the fills demonstrate that, at least during the early 14th century, they were used simultaneously.

In a third phase, which cannot be dated accurately, extra walls were added to the complex and two more cesspits were constructed outside the tower, as part of these additions (fig. 7: 7). The end result was a quadrangular ground plan dominated by the tower in its north-eastern corner. This building complex underwent several major alterations until its disappearance. The two cesspits from phase 3 contained only building debris.


Fig 6 Remains of Het Steen, phase 2 (1: robbed foundation trenches of the tower; 2: partly rebuilt cellar walls; 3: excavated 13th-century road surface; 4: reconstructed 13th-century road surface; 5: cesspit 2; 6: cesspit 4).


Fig 7 Remains of Het Steen, phase 3 (1: robbed foundation trenches of the tower; 2: partly rebuilt cellar walls; 3: excavated 13th-century road surface; 4: reconstructed 13th-century road surface; 5: cesspit 2; 6: cesspit 4; 7: new constructions).

Unfortunately, there are no depictions of the building excavated; on the earliest drawings of this part of town, dating back to the late 16th century, the building has already disappeared. This implies that little is known about the aboveground part of the structure, and its internal organisation. As mentioned, the size of the foundation remains points towards a tower while the building debris indicates a construction of natural stone. The location of the cesspits inside the tower implies that toilets were present inside the building. However, that two cesspits were dug out inside the building, and used contemporaneously, is puzzling. In the case of a tower, the multi-levelled structure could be a partial explanation. In any case, that two (rather large) cesspits were needed at the same time, most probably mainly for people staying within the tower (otherwise one of the cesspits could have been located outside) suggests the presence of a considerable group of users within the building.