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)

6 Interpretation of the finds

When the question is addressed whether the small finds can corroborate the possible identification of the tower as a prison, the most supporting evidence is presented by the large collection of game playing material, unparalleled by any other medieval archaeological context, as far as the authors are aware. Board games are represented by the fragment of a wooden backgammon board and the engraved ceramic tiles. The game pieces needed for these games were found in different forms: black pieces made out of leather, a red ceramic one and several brown wooden ones. The tokens (‘méreaux’) were probably also used as gaming pieces. Different players obviously used game pieces of a specific material and colour. Playing backgammon involves the use of dice, which were indeed found in the cesspits’ fills, but the finds are too numerous to be explained by the use in board games alone. Without doubt, playing dice as a gambling activity on its own took also place within the tower’s rooms.

The most striking aspect of the dice indeed remains their high number. If all 345 pieces found were used exclusively for playing dice, they would then equal 69 sets for games requiring five dice. In the case of playing with three dice, 115 sets are present. Why then was so much game material needed at the site, and why was it all thrown away? The best explanation may be that we are dealing with a group of people that were gambling but that were often controlled against such practices. This interpretation can then point towards a population of prisoners who deliberately threw the dice and all other game objects in the toilets each time the guards controlled the rooms. Or did the guards throw the material into the pits in order to maintain the prohibition against gambling? In any case, new dice had to be smuggled in afterwards (there is no proof for their production within the building), meanwhile, the number of objects in the cesspits’ fills gradually grew, even taking into account regular cleaning. As has been mentioned, in the 16th-century rules for the town prison, there was a tolerance towards playing dice (Beterams 1956, xlii-xliii) but, apparently, this seems not to be true for the older prison regime. Indeed, playing dice was at any rate forbidden in Malines around 1300 (Maes 1947, 347-348).

The gambling material, taking into account all contextual information, thus points towards a prison. An alternative explanation could be that the site investigated was an inn, where customers were gambling, or a military site, where soldiers did the same. However, the first option is hard to match with the nature of the building (a tower), while the presence of a military site in the centre of town is not supported by the written sources. This leaves us with the sole option of a prison, for which historical support is indeed available (see supra). Accepting this, the contents of the cesspits can now illustrate aspects of daily life of the inmates. However, the question still remains whether the cesspits contained waste from the prisoners only, or also from the prison staff? Most likely, the prisoners were housed in the tower while the staff occupied the buildings around it, a situation, however, that does not exclude consumption refuse from the guards also being deposited in the cesspits. However, assuming that food preparation took place in the buildings surrounding the tower, a supposed garbage disposal from those places in the cesspits investigated would have been reflected by a higher proportion of cooking and storage wares amongst the ceramics. Most probably, the cesspits thus mainly contain material related to the prisoners inside the tower.

The analysis of the various find categories shows that there is no clear difference between the contents of cesspit 2 and 4. This observation may be biased by the limited nature of the artefact assemblage from the latter structure but in any case, the biological remains do not point towards different diets. It cannot be ruled out that there was a social differentiation within the prison building, but such a pattern apparently remains hidden, for example by processes of redistribution between different parts of the tower. It must neither be forgotten that the difference between the users of both cesspits could have been that between men and women, and that socially mixed but single-sexed groups could have been occupying different parts of the buildings, connected to a different cesspit. In any case, it is hardly conceivable that the building would have been inhabited by a homogeneous group of people and still would have needed two cesspits. Anyway, in what follows, the finds will be treated as one, single assemblage.

In general, diet within the building cannot be described as rich but the inmates certainly did not live on bread and water alone. Food was even rather diverse, including vegetables and fruits, and a variety of fish, albeit dominated by herring (fig. 24). That herring and other marine species were most often consumed amongst the fish, may be related to the fact that, when processed, they could be kept long as provision. The find assemblages from the cesspits show that marine molluscs, especially mussels, were also part of the prisoners’ diet. Shore crabs and shrimps fit into that marine component of the food supply, although the taphonomic or culinary meaning of these food items remains obscure (intrusive animal remains or not?). That oysters are absent from the contexts investigated has no impact on the evaluation of the diet since oysters do not regularly appear on inland tables before the 16th century. All this, of course, does not mean that the prisoners enjoyed the products of a very rich cuisine.

Expensive or prestigious food items are lacking or virtually absent, i.e., imported spices (except a few pepper fragments), wild mammals (larger than rabbit or hare), and special fish such as sturgeon or large carp. The small sizes of flounder, eel and cyprinids also point to a low purchasing power of the inmates; these fishes do not even necessarily have to have come from the market but could well have been caught in the town waters by people supporting the inmates. The predominance of cattle (fig. 25) can also be seen as an indication of a rather limited status, at least when it is accepted that, at the time, pig was the most favoured meat provider amongst the domestic mammals in the area (Ervynck 2004). The virtual absence of bones from young sheep and cattle points in the same direction, just like the presence of lower quality parts of animal carcasses amongst the table leftovers.


Fig. 24 Frequency of the most important fish species (calculated on the base of standardised counts, see table 9 ).


Fig. 25 Frequencies (based on the numbers of remains) of the most important domestic meat providers.

It must again be stressed that the reconstruction presented depicts the food provisioning of the ‘average prisoner’, who in reality did not exist. Bearing in mind that food was served in small receptacles, individual differences in diet could easily be maintained. Certain more luxurious food items, such as hare or turbot, delivered by friends or relatives, could thus have been eaten by a small portion of the prison population only.

The ceramics recovered do not really add to the evaluation of the prisoners’ status. A clear dominance of greywares is typical for the period considered and, within the present state of ceramological research, stoneware and highly decorated pottery are no longer seen as straightforward indicators of wealth. Purchasing power could have been better evaluated based on the presence (or absence) of metal artefacts, such as metal cooking pots, beakers or plates, which were certainly much more expensive than ceramic artefacts. Metal objects, however, would (if present) never have been deposited in the cesspits but, when discarded, would have been recycled (re-melted). Finally, whether the low number of glass finds is meaningful, remains unclear, since unfavourable preservation conditions could also account for this pattern (see De Groote et al. 2004).

From the small finds sampled from the cesspits, some inferences can be made about daily life within Het Steen. First, the question of food provisioning must be discussed. Extrapolating historical sources from later centuries, it must be taken into account that meals may have been brought in that had been prepared in urban households. Such practice, however, seems difficult to verify through the archaeological finds. Alternatively, some of the animal remains, such as the gastroliths (which are in fact slaughter remains), point towards the preparation of food at the site. However, this does not necessarily imply that the prisoners prepared birds within their rooms. Possibly, cats, running around with slaughter remains, brought them into the prison.

The living conditions within the building are illuminated by a number of finds. The botanical investigation suggests that peat blocks and wood were burnt within the prison rooms. Whether this was done for cooking, or for heating a prepared meal, remains uncertain; possibly burning peat only served for heating the room(s). A metal artefact from the cesspits’ fills indicates that the prison rooms were lit by candles. Fragments of straw suggest that the floor was covered with this plant material or that mattresses or sleeping bags were filled with it. Other aspects of the interior of the building remain out of sight.

Part of the animal remains show that the inmates were not the only ones living in the prison. Animals shared their fate, be it invited or unwelcome. Small arthropods (insects and other species, amongst which many flies) must have belonged to the normal, indoor fauna. They were joined by commensal rodents, which left their gnawing marks on many bones, which must have been lying around before ending up in the cesspit. Bats must have visited the tower and, possibly, some wild birds did too. Some died, or were killed, and ended up in the cesspits. The pigeon bones may represent such an event, if they do not come from an animal brought in as food. Finally, (young) cats must have been present in the tower. Whether these animals were stray cats or were actually kept as pets, is impossible to say. Unwanted kittens of a domestic cat may have been killed by the inhabitants of the tower.

Clearly, the prison was not the cleanest of dwelling places, although medieval standards of hygiene certainly differed from those of today. In any case, garbage disposal was not organised efficiently enough to prevent food refuse from lying around before eventually being cleaned away, an interpretation proven by the rodent gnawing marks. When it could not be burned (given that this was possible within the rooms), most garbage must have been deposited in the cesspits. The pottery must have been broken in the rooms, perhaps by accident, perhaps voluntarily or as result of violent conflict. Why so many fragments of shoes ended up in the cesspits, remains puzzling. Finally, a small part of the finds must represent items lost while using the toilet: pilgrim’s badges, silver and other coins, buckles, etc.

The remarkable set of gaming objects shows how the inmates fought against the boredom of prison life. In general, whatever the game, one must inevitably have played for money, which the inmates indeed also had with them and incidentally lost in the cesspits. Gambling thus implied a potential for accruing further debt but apparently was very popular at the same time. It was easily arranged, created an immediate diversion and it promised to improve one’s material conditions (Geltner 2008b, 154). The apparently daily habit of gambling (for money) must have had its consequences for prison life. Together with the inequalities considering food provisioning and the services one could pay for (documented by the historical sources but not proven by the archaeological assemblage presently discussed), this must have led to disputes and ultimately to violence. From the archaeological finds, such social interactions cannot be reconstructed although, regarding safety and violence, it remains striking that part of the blade of a knife and a chape were found in the cesspits. Unfortunately, it was not possible to verify whether alcohol was consumed by the inmates; otherwise this could shed an even more dramatic light upon daily life within the tower.