Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-1 (October 2012)Thijs Maarleveld; Alice Overmeer: Aanloop Molengat – Maritime archaeology and intermediate trade during the Thirty Years’ War1
3 The Aanloop Molengat cargo

3.5 Bovine hides, in bales

Adjoining the tin barrels, bales of leather were stacked in a cross-ships tier on top of the wrought-iron bars, with a few wooden stakes in between (Blok forthcoming). Two bales were found in their stowage position. One bale was found off the wreck mound. The bales had been stowed lengthwise on their sides, with the hides vertically. The hides in all three bales were smoothly abraded along the top, indicating that they had been exposed for some time and that the third bale had only recently broken away (see fig. 3). For the central bale, abrasion is very limited, thus allowing the composition and folding to be analysed. Each bale originally measured 180 x 150 x 80 cm and was packed in matting (figs.27 and 28). The hides were tanned and were all bovine. Two hides, sometimes joined with a string, were folded together to form a bundle (fig. 29) (Kleij 1992b, 18-22). Each bale contained 60-65 bundles, approximately 375 hides in all. The density of leather is approximately 945 kg/m3, so the three bales would have weighed little less than two tons.


Figure 27 The bale of bovine hides that had abraded most at the top was not dismantled. As most of the objects recovered from the Aanloop Molengat site, it is exposed in the National Depot for Ship Archaeology in Lelystad, the Netherlands (photo: T. Penders (RCE)).


Figure 28 Fragment of matting that was used in wrapping the hide in bales (photo: J. Nientker (RCE)).


Figure 29 Folding method of the hides, as reconstructed by Stikker and Kleij (drawing: P. Kleij (RCE)).

Close scrutiny by Stikker (1988; 1991) and Kleij (1992b) revealed the characteristics of the cattle and of the processing the hides had been subjected to. Teats, for instance, were visible’and cows and bulls (or oxen) are represented in equal quantities, both old and young.

The cattle are small beef stock with a shoulder height of approximately 130 cm. The method of slaughtering varied, with most having a lengthwise incision at the throat. Others had a crosscut, which is characteristic, for instance, of Jewish and Islamic slaughtering. About one third of the hides displayed skinning cuts, some of them stitched up with botanical fibres. Stretching holes of 1 cm were cut approximately four cm from the edge and six cm apart. Several hides had a mark on the tail or right buttock, of which the meaning remains unresolved (fig. 30).


Figure 30 Several marks on tail or right buttock from bales AM-1/ West and AM-1/ East (drawing: N. Stikker/P. Kleij (RCE)).

The find is exceptional and knowledge of this raw material for leatherworking is not common. The expertise of the late W.B. van Herwijnen, formerly of TNO leather research institute in Waalwijk, proved invaluable. Author of a book on leather technology in the 1950s (van Herwijnen 1956), Van Herwijnen had been involved throughout his career in the quality assessment of leather from different sources and of tanning processes. He assessed the Aanloop Molengat hides as being of mediocre but varying quality. The preparation and tanning processes had not been meticulous. Skinning and cropping had been done roughly. Graining, a lengthy process of removing the hair with lime or flowing water, cleaning the inner side and curing the outer side with dog or bird excrement to make them supple, had left occasional patches of black or dark red hair. The inner and outer surfaces were well-tanned, but the interior was not. As a consequence, many hides split. The hides had been tanned with botanical tanning agents, coarsely diffused in water. The product suggests simple tan pits with a mix of oak, horse chestnut and chestnut barks as tanning agents, possibly enriched with mimosa or sumac. Long exposure to seawater has partly reversed the tanning process. Stretching holes indicate the final flattening, cleaning and possibly greasing of the sheets, but are cut irregularly.

The leather should be considered half-finished, to be curried (and possibly re-tanned) on arrival. Despite the varying quality of the individual sheets, the overall composition of the bales seems to be uniform (Kleij 1992b, 39). This indicates that production was dispersed and the shipment was gathered and purchased through a middleman.

The leather industry and commerce in the Low Countries processed hides not only from local tanneries, but also from Scandinavia, Germany, England, Spain and (from the early 17th century) Africa and America (Baart 1977, 69-71). On the basis of texture, grain, size and tanning, Van Herwijnen assumed a provenance from southern Europe, more specifically Spain. South America is another possibility (Kleij 1992b, 40). During the years 1630-1650 Amsterdam boasted a lively trade in ‘West-Indian’ (Southern American) hides.

In order to try and establish the breeding and provenance (Lenstra 2009), six samples of cattle hide were submitted for DNA research in 2011. They included material to which hairs adhered. The samples were examined by F. Welker using the facilities of NCB Naturalis (Welker et al. forthcoming). Only low concentrations of human DNA were found, and it is unclear whether these are contemporary or a recent contamination.

The fibres used to stitch the cuts and the matting in which the leather was packed were studied to identify the plant species used. The fibres derived from woody species or bark, possibly alder or willow, which are very common species. The matting possibly derived from broad-leaved cottongrass (Eriophorum latifolium), which is native to raised bogs and has not previously been identified as packing material (Brinkkemper & Joosten 2012; HyperlinkBrink). The outermost layer of cells (epidermis) was too poorly preserved to allow certain identification. Cottongrass occurs in large parts of Europe, and since the identification is uncertain, no inferences can be made regarding the origin of the bovine hides.