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)
5 The small finds

5.8 Macrobotanical remains

For macrobotanical analysis (seeds and fruits), samples of 10 litres, from layers D, C and B in cesspit 2, and from C and B1 in cesspit 4, have been wet sieved using mesh widths of 4, 2, 1 and 0.5 mm. Additionally, a small volume from the same layers has been sieved over a mesh width of 0.25 mm. The great majority of the seeds and fruits recovered were waterlogged, while charred and mineralised material was less frequent. Identifications are listed in table 1. They are lumped per cesspit since meaningful differences between the layers, in terms of their botanical contents, could not be observed. The macrobotanical remains are discussed as a single collection, since differences between both cesspits are also absent.


Table 1 Macrobotanical remains found in the cesspits (uncharred unless indicated otherwise, (ch.): charred, (min.): mineralised) (*: some; **: tens, ***: hundreds, +: present but not quantified, fr.: fragments)
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Cereals are mainly represented by bran fragments, the outer wall of the grains, which are together with the grains ground into the flour used for making bread. These are not completely digested and thus end up in a cesspit as part of human excrements. Species identification of this material was not possible. Other cereal material includes waterlogged chaff fragments of rye (Secale cereale), a number of mineralised ears of the same species (fig. 20) and a single charred grain of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum). The latter cereal was more expensive than rye in late medieval times, but the species is less resistant to hard winters. The mineralised ears of rye must have been part of straw that was put onto the floor, or that was used as filling for sleeping bags or mattresses. The uncharred chaff remains of rye could also have been part of that straw. Since rye is a free-threshing cereal, the chaff normally remains at the site where threshing was carried out.


Fig. 20 Mineralised ears of rye (Secale cereale).

The consumption of vegetables is always hard to reconstruct from cesspit material; most species are consumed before seed production. Only the remains of ‘cabbage’ (Brassica sp.) could be identified, although, in theory, these could also derive from wild representatives of the genus. Pulses are traditionally underrepresented as well; the species found are lentil (Lens culinaris) and Celtic or broad bean (Vicia faba). Herbs and spices were also sparingly represented, with savory (Satureja hortensis) and pepper (Piper nigrum) the only two species present. The first is a kitchen herb that was commonly used and probably accessible to most people, the second a more expensive spice (Collet, 1992). Pepper was only found in cesspit 4.

Fruits and nuts form the most abundant category of consumable plants. Nuts are represented by hazel (Corylus avellana) and walnut (Juglans regia), both locally available. The fruit spectrum comprises many locally grown species, and some imported species. The first group is represented by apple (Malus domestica), pear (Pyrus communis), sweet cherry (Prunus avium), sour cherry (Prunus cerasus), plum (Prunus domestica ssp. domestica), damson (Prunus domestica ssp. insititia), medlar (Mespilus germanica), strawberry (Fragaria vesca), bilberries (Vaccinium sp.), blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) and raspberry (Rubus idaeus), that were commonly available at the town markets. For imported species, only figs (Ficus carica) and grapes (Vitis vinifera) are present, but the latter may also have grown in local vineyards. More exceptional are the finds, from cesspit 4, of black mulberry (Morus nigra), a local fruit that was mostly grown in the gardens of the well-to-do (Lindemans 1952, II, 205).

The cesspits contained the seeds from a wide variety of weeds. Most of these are considered to be weeds from arable fields, with corncockle (Agrostemma githago) and cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) as the most common species. Without doubt, many of these weeds were brought into the building with the straw that was used for floor covering or other purposes. Weeds from grasslands could have arrived at the site in the same way (with hay). Some of these seeds, however, could have been contaminants of the cereals consumed in the tower.

Macroremains (and spores, see infra) of peat moss (Sphagnum sp.) point to the presence of peat (Deforce et al. 2007). Macrobotanical remains of cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum) corroborate this interpretation. Peat would have been brought into the building as fuel.