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

5.2 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).