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

5.1 Sampling and recovery

next section

Although the dimensions of the two cesspits are not equal (see supra), the stratigraphy of both fills is roughly similar. At the bottom of structure 2 (fig. 8), a cess layer (2D) was found consisting of a superposition of many smaller layers, the result of the constant use but, at the same time, frequent cleaning of the pit. This layer is covered by another cess layer (2C), which in turn is covered by a layer especially rich in finds (2B). The destruction of the pit is reflected by a layer (2A), consisting of building debris (brick, tile fragments, mortar), charcoal and ceramics. In cesspit 4 (fig. 9), the lowest part of the fill (4C) again consisted of a series of cess layers (comparable to 2D), followed by a layer (4B) that was partially disturbed by the intrusion of building debris (4B1). The uppermost layer (4A2) has the same characteristics as unit 2A in the other cesspit, although part of it (4A) must have been further disturbed while the foundations of the tower were robbed. The fill of cesspit 2 was excavated completely, that of cesspit 4 was only partially excavated (approximately 50%), concentrating on the parts of the layers with concentrations of find material. Finds have been hand-collected from the volumes excavated and the remaining sediment has been sieved (see infra, table 4).

Outside the cesspits, but still within the tower, a cess layer (layer 1) was found, which contained sherds that matched finds from the cesspit fills. Clearly, this layer represents a part of those fills that has been removed during a destruction phase. Only a selection of material from this ‘layer 1’ has been included in the analyses.


Fig 8 Section through cesspit 2 (stratigraphy: see text).


Fig 9 Section through cesspit 4 (stratigraphy: see text).

5.2 Ceramics

The ceramic fragments studied were those hand-collected, supplemented with the finds from the sieved residues. The number of sherds from the cesspit’s fills was enormous and the high degree of fragmentation made (re-)fitting extremely difficult, especially since most finds represent undecorated greyware. For this reason, the analysis concentrated on the rim fragments. These were used to discriminate between pottery types, an exercise hampered, however, by the absence of a formal typology for the local pottery of that time. Consequently, no attempt was made to produce strict quantitative data, such as frequencies expressed as percentages.

The pottery assemblages from the different stratigraphic units within the cesspit’s fills apparently represent a homogeneous early 14th-century assemblage, showing no diachronic differences. These find groups can thus be treated as a whole; even between the ceramics from both cesspits no differences could be observed. However, the find numbers differ considerably, with 391 rim fragments in cesspit 2 and only 24 rim fragments in structure 4. Even when this last number is doubled (only half of the fill was excavated, albeit the part with the highest find density), the difference is striking. Possibly, this discrepancy may be explained by a difference in the connection between the cesspits and the latrines. If structure 4 was, for example, connected by means of a chute with a toilet on the upper floor, this could have limited the input of ceramic waste. In any case, the find numbers for the other categories of material are also consistently low, hampering the comparison between the assemblages of both cesspits.

The ceramics from the tower comprise tablewares, storage vessels and cooking vessels (figs 10, 11, 12, 13). The first group is dominated by jugs of varying dimensions, most commonly in greyware, with some examples in highly decorated redware. Beakers are rare, but, when present, are made in stoneware, while smaller bowls and dishes are virtually absent. Both bowls and dishes (or plates) are found more frequently amongst the wooden objects. The storage vessels mainly include pitchers, mainly in greyware but some stoneware pitchers also occur, along with some fragments of storage jars and a single fragment of a spouted pot. Cooking receptacles are mainly represented by a large number of single-handled cooking pots (both in redware and in greyware) and a single fragment of a dripping pan. Fragments of lids in redware may be linked with the single-handled cooking pots. Large tripod cooking pots are virtually absent. Finally, the fragments of two types of bowls (a large semi-globular form and a wide, open form called teil) could not be ascertained to a functional pottery category; they presumably had a multifunctional role in the late medieval household. It appears that tableware dominates the assemblages: almost three quarters belongs to that category. Cooking pottery represents a fifth of the finds. Overall, the ceramic assemblage is strongly dominated by greyware, a typical phenomenon for this period in eastern Flanders and western Brabant (De Groote 2008, 402-406).


Fig. 10 Tableware from the cesspits: jugs in highly decorated redware, greyware and stoneware.


Fig. 11 Tableware from the cesspits: beakers in stoneware and a wooden plate.


Fig 12 Storage vessels from the cesspits: pitchers in greyware and stoneware, and a greyware spouted pot.


Fig. 13 Cooking vessels from the cesspits: single-handle cooking pot in greyware, single-handle cooking pot in redware, and a frying pan in redware.

The functional composition of the pottery requires closer examination. The main question is whether the assemblage reflects a common household where all domestic activities took place. Were meals cooked within the tower, or did only prepared food arrive at the place, either from the surrounding buildings or from outside? The main impediment to solving this interpretational problem is the scarcity of comparative archaeological assemblages, certainly from Malines itself, but also from synchronous sites on a regional scale. Assemblages used for comparison should moreover be sought nearby, given the regional variability of late medieval ceramic material from the former feudal entity of Brabant, compared to e.g. Flanders (De Poorter 2001; De Groote 2008). Only a limited number of such assemblages are available from Brabant, viz. material from the castle of Londerzeel (Dewilde & Van der Plaetsen 1994) and an urban refuse deposit at Aalst (De Groote & Moens 1995). From (feudal) Flemish territory, synchronous assemblages are those from the fill of a sewer at the abbey of Ename (De Groote 2008), two from Brugge (Hillewaert et al., unpubl. data) and three from Gent (Desmet & Raveschot 1983; Raveschot 1982; Van Doorne 1980).

Comparing these contexts, the abundance of tablewares at the tower is striking. This pattern, referring to the consumption rather than to the storage or preparation of food, can be interpreted as proof for the absence of kitchen activities in the tower. The fill of a cesspit, as refuse container, should reflect the activities in the adjacent rooms. Cesspits located close to the consumption area (the ‘dining room’) will always contain more tableware than refuse contexts farther away from that part of former households. So cooking probably did not take place in the tower itself, but possibly in the surrounding buildings, while food may also have been brought in, e.g. from urban households outside Het Steen. The contents of the fills also suggest that, if kitchen activities had taken place in the surrounding buildings, refuse from that part of the site did not end up in the cesspits in the tower.

Pursuing the evaluation of activities that were part of the chain of food production to consumption, it must also be stressed that specific pottery types were not necessarily used for a single purpose. Receptacles used for cooking could also have been used for serving the meal (stressing even more the dominance of ‘tableware’). People could indeed have eaten from frying pans or small cooking pots. In this respect, it is perhaps meaningful to underline that, within the cooking wares, vessels of small dimensions, viz. the single-handled cooking pots, dominate, while large double-handled tripod cooking pots are virtually absent. This suggests that food was served in single portions rather than as communal meals, even if cooking took place near the rooms. This pattern could also be interpreted as proof for the delivery of meals prepared in urban kitchens, transported in small cooking vessels covered by ceramic lids, like those found in the cesspits, and perhaps reheated on the hearth of one of the rooms.

Grey pottery (dominant in the assemblage) is now perceived as a less attractive product than redware, and certainly to stoneware or highly decorated ceramics. Its dominance in an assemblage could, without taking into account location or timeframe, be interpreted erroneously as an indicator of lower purchasing power. However, the assemblages mentioned earlier show that greywares were still dominant in the western Brabant territory during the period under discussion (De Groote 2008, 415-420). Therefore, the abundance of greywares in the fills of the cesspits does not justify an attribution of the tower inhabitants to a lower social class. In the same way the (rare) presence of stoneware and redware does not imply the presence of richer people at the site.

A special group amongst the ceramic finds is formed by 17 fragments of tiles that have been used as games-boards. The tiles are engraved with geometrical patterns referring to games such as backgammon (with triangular motifs towards the rim) and ‘merels’ or ‘nine men’s morris’ (with concentric squares and intersecting lines, fig. 14). A single small circular piece of brick must have been used as a playing disc or counter.


Fig. 14 Game board for ‘merels’ or ‘nine men’s morris’, engraved into a tile (side 21 cm).

5.3 Wooden objects

A number of wooden cups and plates (fig. 11) were recovered from the cesspit fills (albeit almost exclusively from cesspit 2). Other wooden artefacts include a number of unidentified (fragments of) objects, fragments of (toilet?) lids, a number of gaming pieces (one showing a decoration of engraved concentric circles, fig. 15) and part of a gaming board, resembling that of present backgammon (fig. 16). A number of wooden sticks with clear cut marks were also found. These were possibly used as counting devices (tally-sticks).

5.4 Bone objects

A remarkable collection of 345 bone dice (fig. 17) was recovered from the sieved residues, 144 from cesspit 2, 194 from layer 1 (the disturbed contents of the cesspit’s fills) and 7 from cesspit 4 (which was only partly excavated). The cubes show side lengths between 5 and 11 mm and are made from the long bones of large mammals. The numbers are indicated by engraved circles and mostly follow a regular pattern, with 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and 5 and 6 on opposite sides. Although this is the standard late medieval pattern, only 45% of the dice show an absolutely identical configuration of the numbers. Often the orientation of the numbers differs or production mistakes have been made, resulting in numbers occurring twice or in sides without any number. A particular group of 18 dice must be related to a different game than that for which the standard dice were used. In 10 cases the opposing sides both bear the numbers 2, 4 or 6, while 8 dice follow the pattern ‘1-1, 3-3, 5-5’. It is obvious that this cannot be the result of random mistakes made during production of the artefacts. Their number (10 and 8) possibly suggests that these dice were used as pairs. Unfortunately, it remains unknown for which game these dice were used.


Fig. 15 Wooden game pieces.


Fig. 16 Wooden backgammon board.


Fig. 17 Bone dice, sides 5 to 11 mm.

5.5 Leather

In total, 139 fragments of leather have been recovered (cesspits 2 and 4 combined), characterised by moderate to poor preservation conditions. The majority (100 fragments) comprises parts of shoes. Two types of shoes could be identified. One is a side-laced ankle shoe and the other a wooden-soled patten mule. The remainder are fragments of belts and nine more or less circular discs (fig. 18), probably to be interpreted as game pieces, cut out of used leather, most probably soles of shoes. One sole fragment clearly shows that discs have been cut out of it (fig. 19), which implies that they were made locally, in an ad hoc way.


Fig. 18 Leather game pieces.


Fig. 19 Fragment of the leather sole of a shoe with circular incisions.

5.6 Metal artefacts

The cesspits (mainly pit 2) contained thirty coins, all but three made in an alloy of copper and silver. The unfavourable preservation conditions in the pits made these coins completely illegible. Three coins, however, were made of silver and are preserved in a better state. They all show a minting date in the end of the 13th or the beginning of the early 14th century. Another group of metal objects is formed by 54 tokens (méreaux), which had no real monetary value but were used as counters. They also often served as gaming tokens, probably the reason why they were found in the cesspit contexts. Other metal objects include two religious pilgrim’s badges, a number of fragments from buckles, strap loops and mounts, a small candlestick made in a pewter-lead alloy, a fragment of an iron knife blade and a bronze chape.

5.7 Glass

The excavations only produced four glass fragments, all from layer 1 and thus no longer associated to one of the cesspits. The fragments refer to the most common type of drinking glass, a so-called ‘glass goblet’, found throughout the 14th century in the duchy of Brabant. The preservation conditions in the cesspits may have hampered the survival of other glass objects.

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)
 Dynamic content

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.

5.9 Pollen, spores and parasite eggs

Five pollen samples have been analysed, three from cesspit 2 and two from cesspit 4, in each case derived from the bottom layers of the fills (table 2). The results are discussed in general, in view of the similarity of the pollen spectra of all samples.

The most frequent pollen type is that of cereals (Cerealia), of which only rye (Secale cereale) could be identified to species level. The abundance of cereal pollen is most likely linked with the consumption of grain products, since a high amount of pollen stays attached to the grains after the plant has flowered. The same must be the case with arable weeds like corncockle (Agrostemma githago), chamomile type (Anthemis type), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), white lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora) and corn poppy type (Papaver rhoeas type), of which seeds must have been brought in to the flour mill and bakery together with grain. Other food plants represented in the pollen spectra are parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), pea (Pisum sativum) and grape (Vitis vinifera). The latter pollen could have ended up in the cesspits because of the consumption of fresh grapes or raisins, although drinking wine might also be an explanation (Rösch 2005). Kitchen herbs are represented by chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), borage (Borago officinalis) and coriander (Coriandrum sativum).


Table 2 Results of the analysis of pollen, spores and non-pollen palynomorphs (specimen counts).
 Dynamic content

An alternative explanation for (at least) part of the pollen of cereals and their associated weeds might be the use of straw or hay for stuffing mattresses or covering the floor. Yet another possible source for part of the pollen may have been the consumption of honey. Typical honey plants, largely depending on bees for pollination, are trefoil type (Lotus type), white clover type (Trifolium repens type) and red clover type (Trifolium pratense type) (Sawyer 1988). Many others of the entomophilous pollen types may have arrived at the site in the same way (Deforce in press). Honey, which often contains extremely high amounts of pollen, was commonly used as sweetener in the late medieval kitchen and was a much cheaper alternative to pure sugar (Dalby 2000, Küster 2000). The pollen of common heather (Calluna vulgaris), with remarkable high values in cesspit 4, will either relate to the peat mentioned earlier, to honey, or to both. Spores of peat moss (Sphagnum sp.) do point to the presence of peat (Deforce et al. 2007). A coenobium (colony structure) of Pediastrum kawraiskyi, a green alga from oligotrophic aquatic biotopes, corroborates this interpretation.

Finally, the pollen samples also contained the eggs of intestinal parasites, i.e. Ascaris and Trichuris. These species are found in almost all cesspits from this period and must have been very common parasites of people and their animals.

5.10 Charcoal

Analysis of charcoal fragments derived from different layers within each cesspit shows that beech (Fagus sylvatica), alder (Alnus sp.) and oak (Quercus sp.) were most commonly used as firewood. Birch (Betula sp.) is also frequently represented but hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus), poplar (Populus sp.) and willow (Salix sp.) only rarely ended up on a fire inside the tower (table 3). This pattern is not surprising: oak and beech are ideal for burning, both as firewood and as charcoal. Alder is less suited for firewood but produces good quality charcoal (Gale & Cutler 2000). From the fragments investigated, it could not be seen whether wood or charcoal was used predominantly. The results from the pollen analysis and the study of macrobotanical remains suggest that peat was also used as fuel. Remarkably, the charcoal spectrum seems to differ between both cesspits, with structure 2 containing more beech and oak, but structure 4 significantly more alder. The patterns observed, however, may be the result of random events.


Table 3 Results of the charcoal analysis (specimen counts and frequencies).

5.11 Animal remains

Methods and preservation

The animal remains from the cesspits were studied per stratigraphic layer (2B, 2C, 2D, 4B, 4C), excluding the uppermost deposits of building debris (2A, 4B1, 4A2, 4A). The fill of cesspit 2 was excavated and analysed completely, that of structure 4 was only partially excavated (approximately 50% but concentrating on dense find deposits). The total volume excavated was sieved over 4 mm mesh, a certain part additionally over 2 mm, and an even smaller part also over 1 mm. The 4 mm residue was fully analysed, the other residues partly (table 4). By recording the sample volumes, it is possible to calculate the total contents of the excavated parts of the fills as if they were sieved completely on a 1 mm mesh, and as if the residues were subsequently sorted entirely. The aim of the reconstruction of the original quantities is a comparison of relative frequencies of species per layer. It should be noted, however, that this exercise has only been undertaken for the fish remains. Finds from this group are typically divided over all sieved fractions while different ecological groups are represented by material of different dimensions (e.g. small freshwater fish versus large marine species). An inventory of the animal remains is given in tables 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.


Table 4 Inventory, per cesspit and layer, of the volumes sieved, using different mesh widths. From the proportion of the volumes sieved, and the percentages of the residues sorted, a standardisation factor can be calculated, enabling to transform the finds numbers per sieved unit into numbers describing the contents of the cesspits as if the whole volume would have been sieved on a 1 mm mesh width and all of the residue would have been sorted.

The animal remains are, in general, characterised by a poor preservation condition. That the bone material is severely fragmented could be expected and will be the result of human activities related with the preparation and consumption of food, but the physico-chemical state of the remains is also poor, which should be taken into account when discussing the presence, absence and abundance of certain find groups.


Table 5 Animal remains from the 4 mm (mesh width) fractions from the different layers within the cesspits (except fish remains) (specimen counts, except for finds indicated as ‘+’, which were present but not quantified).
 Dynamic content

Table 6 Animal remains from the 2 and 1 mm (mesh width) fractions from the different layers within the cesspits (except fish remains) (specimen counts, except for finds indicated as ‘+’, which were present but not quantified).
 Dynamic content


Insect remains were limited in number and only occurred in the lowest deposits. The taxa represented typically are parasites on (dead or living) animal and plant material, or on cess or other decomposing substances. The pupae of flies are the most common finds within this group; these species must have actively visited the cesspits in order to deposit their eggs.

Molluscs and crustaceans

All mollusc remains are shell fragments from marine species: periwinkles (Littorina littorea), cockles (Cerastoderma edule) and (most frequently) mussels (Mytilus edulis). Remarkably, shells from freshwater or terrestrial molluscs are lacking, possibly because of the poor preservation conditions. The small size of the cockles is striking, suggesting that they came to the site together with lumps of mussels, rather than as a separate food item.

Crustaceans are represented by a small number of skeletal fragments from the common shore crab (Carcinus maenas) and the common shrimp (Crangon crangon), two marine species. Both may either have been consumed, or accidentally have been brought in with other sea food. The barnacles (Cirripedia sp.) must have ended up in the pits together with the mussel shells to which they typically live attached.

Two other crustacean taxa are present: the woodlice (Isopoda sp.) and the common pill bug (Armadillidium vulgare). These animals live in dark, wet places and can often be found in the lower part of buildings.


The number of fish bones recovered and studied is large, comprising more than 34,000 remains, of which more than 24,000 identifiable, representing at least 28 species. Marine fish are dominant (tables 7, 8, 9). Cartilaginous marine fish are rare and are represented by two ray species, Raja clavata (thornback ray) and Raja montagui (spotted ray) and possibly sharks, although this could not be attested beyond doubt. Amongst the group of marine fishes with a bone skeleton, herring (Clupea harengus) is the most common species. A number of skeletal elements belonging to the herring family (Clupeidae sp.) could not be identified to species and possibly represent small specimens of allis shad or twaite shad (Alosa sp.), two anadromous species (see infra). Possibly, amongst the smaller, unidentified clupeid remains, sprat (Sprattus sprattus) is also present although it remains striking that not a single positive identification could be made. If it is assumed that all smaller skeletal elements amongst the clupeids do represent herring, then remains of this fish form about half of the fish material. Most of the herring had a standard length (measured from the tip of the snout to the base of the tail) of 20-25 cm. The form in which the animals arrived at the site is difficult to ascertain. They were certainly not gutted (‘gekaakt’, resulting in the absence of certain skeletal elements of the gill cover and the shoulder girdle) but arrived whole. These whole fish were most presumably not fresh, but processed (salted or smoked) in some way.


Table 7 Fish remains from the 4, 2 and 1 mm fractions of the sieved residues (specimen counts, except for finds indicated as ‘+’, which were present but not quantified).
 Dynamic content

Table 8 Standardised counts of the fish remains. These reconstructed data give an inventory of the contents of the excavated parts of the cesspits as if the total volume would have been sieved using a 1 mm mesh width, and alle residues would have been sorted (*: of which 19 skeletal elements of the same individual).
 Dynamic content

Table 9 Relative frequencies (%) of the fish remains, calculated on the basis of the reconstructed counts (see table 8) (*: of which 19 skeletal elements of the same individual).
 Dynamic content

From the gadid family (Gadidae sp.) three species were found, viz. whiting (Merlangius merlangus), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) and cod (Gadus morhua). Their remains form a minor part of the assemblage, but will have been important for the food supply in view of their dimensions and meat weight. The whiting show standard lengths of 25-35 cm, the haddock of 40-50 cm (fig. 21). From both species, all skeletal elements were found in representative numbers, indicating that these fish arrived whole (fresh?) at the site. Cod, however, shows a bimodal distribution with peaks around 65 and 95 cm (fig. 21). It has been investigated whether one of these two groups could represent stockfish (beheaded, dried fish typically produced in northern regions) but no clear conclusions could be made. The cod consumed was possibly processed in some way but not as stockfish, of which the large scale import probably only started after the period studied here.

In Flemish late medieval inland sites, next to herring and gadids, flatfish are typically one of the three important groups of marine fish consumed. At the site, most of the flatfish consumed was plaice (Pleuronectes platessa, 80%) while flounder (Platichthys flesus) reached considerably lower frequencies and material from dab (Limanda limanda) was extremely rare. Plaice, showing standard lengths of most frequently 20-30 cm but occasionally up to 45 cm (fig. 21), must have been fished at sea but the flounder could have come from the Scheldt river basin. It tolerates freshwater conditions and is represented by much smaller specimens, most commonly 10-20 cm standard length (fig. 21). Of minimal importance for the food supply were turbot (Psetta maxima), a flatfish species mostly fished in northern waters, and sole (Solea sp.). The marine fish spectrum is completed by low numbers of horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus), thinlip mullet (Liza ramada), at least one member of the searobins (Triglidae sp.) and mackerel (Scomber scombrus).

Anadromous fish live in the sea but migrate into freshwater river systems in order to spawn. Representatives found are allis shad or twaite shad (Alosa sp.), smelt (Osmerus eperlanus), whitefish (Coregonus sp.) and at least one member of the trout family (Salmonidae sp.), most probably salmon (Salmo salar) or seatrout (Salmo trutta trutta). Within this group, smelt was the most common species to be served at the table. However, these fish were of small size: only 5-15 cm standard length. For further interpretation, it should be remembered that whitefish and trout are fish that store a lot of fat in pores inside their bones, which therefore dissolve easily in the soil, due to the transformation of fat into fatty acids, which dissolve the surrounding mineral (calcium) component of the bone (Mézes & Bartosiewicz 1994). These species are thus probably underrepresented.


Fig. 21 Standard lengths (SL: length from the snout to the base of the tail) of a number of fish species consumed in Het Steen (cesspits 2 and 4 combined).

Freshwater fish comprise only a fifth of the fish remains identified. Within this group, cyprinids (Cyprinidae sp.) and eel (Anguilla anguilla) are the most frequent. The eel bones represent average sized specimens (mostly 30-40 cm standard length, fig. 21). About one tenth of the cyprinids could be identified to species, showing the presence of roach (Rutilus rutilus), at least one Leuciscus species (chub, dace, ide), bream (Blicca bjoerka) and carp (Cyprinus carpio f. domestica). Most of these fishes were caught at young ages, showing small sizes, viz. standard lengths of less than 20 cm (fig. 21). The (small number of) carp deserves some attention since this fish was only introduced into the Low Countries during the late medieval period (Hoffmann 1994). At first, it was kept in ponds managed by noble households and abbeys but soon carp escaped into the wild, while medieval towns also started to breed the species in their moats (Deligne 2009). The small carp found in the cesspits could thus well have been fished in the town waters and do not necessarily bear any status. Other remains of freshwater fish found in the contexts investigated include small numbers of skeletal elements of burbot (Lota lota), pike (Esox lucius), three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and perch (Perca fluviatilis).


The bird remains are characterised by a high frequency of unidentifiable fragments (table 5). Bones from geese are rather frequent and probably belong almost exclusively to the domestic goose (Anser anser f. domestica). Remains from ducks are less common and possibly all represent the domestic duck (Anas platyrhynchos f. domestica). Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus f. domestica) is the most abundant species, mostly represented by adult animals. Other bird remains include a partial skeleton of a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), and a number of bones from little owl(Athene noctua) and domestic pigeon (Columba livia f. domestica). Whether the latter three species represent food remains, is unclear. These animals were possibly simply killed when coming near to the tower, or were found dead and cleaned away.

Domestic pigeons were, however, only introduced into the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages, to be kept as a status symbol (but also manure producers) in towers near castles or abbeys. Soon, they escaped and started to breed on high buildings in towns (Benecke 1994). The status of the pigeon remains is thus unclear: they could represent a food item brought in from some richer household, or a feral animal living on or around the tower. The spectrum of bird remains is completed by a number of songbird bones (Passeriformes sp.), unidentified eggshell fragments, tracheal ‘rings’ (bone elements supporting the trachea) and small, polished stones, known as ‘gastroliths’, swallowed by birds and used as grinding material in their digestive system (fig. 22). All skeletal elements are represented, except, in the most commonly found species, the bones from the tips of the wings.


Fig 22 Gastroliths of birds.


Most important in number are the bones of domestic animals: cattle (Bos primigenius f. taurus), sheep (Ovis ammon f. aries) and pig (Sus scrofa f. domestica) (table 4). Cattle clearly was the most important meat provider. Of all three species, remains of all parts of the skeleton were found. Cattle and sheep are mostly represented by older animals. Game species played a minor role in the food supply; only hare (Lepus capensis) and rabbit are attested (Oryctolagus cuniculus). The latter finds are interesting because the rabbit was only introduced into the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages and was kept – first for its fur, only later also as a food item – in wastelands such as the coastal dunes and in enclosed hunting areas, the so-called ‘warrens’. Keeping rabbits was a project of the upper class, i.e. the inhabitants of castles and abbeys (Lauwerier & Zeiler 2001; Ervynck 2003). Only later (although the exact date for this evolution is unknown), were rabbits kept in small cages by urban households, thus becoming a real domestic animal. Finally, both cesspits contained a number of bones from cats (Felis silvestris f. catus), mostly young animals.

The small mammal remains comprise a skull fragment of an unidentified bat species (Chiroptera sp.) and a large number of rodent bones from both the 4 mm and 2 mm sieve. The latter group apparently only consists of skeletal elements of two commensal species, the house mouse (Mus musculus) and the black rat (Rattus rattus). The presence of these rodents, and especially of the black rat, is also clearly witnessed by gnawing marks on the chicken remains, and on the bones of the large domestic animals of which the meat was consumed within the tower (fig. 23).


Fig. 23 Cattle phalanges gnawed by rodents (left: reference specimen), most probably black rats (Rattus rattus).

Conclusions on the animal remains

The inventory of the animal remains clearly shows that, within this find group, most of the contents of the cesspits’ fills consist of consumption refuse. Possibly, the small-sized cockles and the shore crab only arrived at the site together with lumps of mussels, and the sparrowhawk and little owl were perhaps not eaten but only killed or found dead. Furthermore, there is a category of so-called intrusive animals that lived in the building without being invited or encouraged to do so: the insects and woodlice, and the commensal house mouse and black rat. Finally, the cesspits contained the remains of animals that lived near the spot without playing any role in the food provisioning, such as the cats of which only parts of the skeletons have been found. It remains possible that these animals have also been eaten but the bone remains bear no traces that could ascertain this interpretation.

Within the taphonomic group of consumption refuse, a subdivision must be made between slaughter remains, kitchen refuse and table leftovers. This interpretational exercise is especially meaningful because it illuminates the chain of food preparation activities within the building. Within that context, it is striking that the bird remains are characterised by the presence of almost all skeletal elements, except the bones from the tips of the wings, and even elements associated with the intestines (tracheal rings and gastroliths) that are normally removed before cooking. This could suggest that whole birds were brought in, and were prepared on the spot, of which only skin and plumage (with the small bones of the wings still attached) was taken outside. Alternatively, it could be envisaged that birds were brought into the building with their skin and plumage already removed (thus already prepared for cooking), although the presence of the gastroliths and tracheal rings would imply that the intestines were not yet removed.

The larger mammals present similar interpretation problems. In the case of cattle, slaughter remains (e.g. horncores) seem to be absent, but from sheep and pig most parts of the skeleton apparently ended up in the contexts investigated. This could imply that the processing of carcasses took place within the building complex or, perhaps more likely, that all parts of the animals (including those that normally have been left at the processing place) were also used as ingredients in the meals.