Medieval Port Found Under ‘Parking 58’ in Brussels

Beams of the 15th century port in the centre of Brussels, close to Place Saint-Catherine (photo: Siska Van Parys, RBINS)
03/04/2019
Medieval Port Found Under ‘Parking 58’ in Brussels
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Siska Van Parys

Archaeologists of our Institute and Urban.Brussels stumbled upon remains of the 15th century Brussels harbour on the site of the former ‘Parking 58’. The most remarkable find so far: a perfectly preserved wooden fish trap.

The site is located the heart of Brussels, near Place Sainte-Catherine. ‘We knew from old texts about the existence of a 15th century port in the centre of Brussels, but this is the first time we can actually see it,’ says Ann Degraeve, head of the Department of Archaeological Heritage at Urban.Brussels. Degraeve is very enthusiastic: ‘We even ran into intact quays of the former Senne!’ The potsherds found show that this is a 15th century site. Further research on the pottery will fine-tune this to an accuracy of 25 years.

Exceptional find

The most important find to date is a wooden fish trap. Never before has such an intact specimen been found in our country. It lay at the bottom of the Senne river, where the conditions were ideal to withstand five centuries. ‘Organic materials, such as wood and leather, are only found very exceptionally in archaeological excavations,’ says Koen Deforce, archeobotanist at the KBIN. ‘This is only possible when oxygen is not available, otherwise it will be decomposed within a few years. The bottom of the Senne was a low-oxygen spot and the sediment quickly covered the trap, allowing us to admire it in all its glory today!’

The company KunstWacht from Delft came to get the trap out of the soil. The experts designed a custom-made box which they placed around the trap with great care. A gigantic excavator helped to slide the iron plate, which served as the bottom of the box, underneath it. An exciting moment, because one wrong movement and the ancient wood breaks into a thousand pieces.

Koen Deforce already examined a twig from the trap. ‘It is willow. Not surprisingly, since willow is one of the most flexible woods in our region. Most of the medieval wickerwork is made from it.’

Before the trap can be exhibited, it must first undergo several treatments. ‘It is well preserved, but a large part of the cellulose, essential for the firmness of plant cells, has disappeared from the wood,’ says Jef Pinceel, responsible for the archaeological collection at Urban.Brussels. The wood cells are currently only kept open by water. We will therefore first soak the trap with a product that ensures that the wood retains its original shape as much as possible, even without water. We then remove the water by freeze-drying the trap and clean it as much as possible'. It does remain on the supporting sand block, otherwise it will disintegrate.

The medieval inhabitants of Brussels

The good conservation conditions at the bottom of the Senne have also protected other beauty from the ravages of time. ‘It's teeming with shoes!’ says archaeologist Stephan Van Bellingen. ‘For most of them only the sole is left, but sometimes we even find an intact upperside.’

There were also numerous well-preserved fruit seeds visible in the sediment. Lien Speleers, archeobotanist at the KBIN, already took some samples: ‘From the seeds and fruits in these soil samples we can see what people ate in terms of grains, pulses, vegetables, fruit and herbs. They can also give information about agriculture in the 15th century and about the use of plants for other economic activities, such as paint or textile plants.’ Her colleague Bea De Cupere, archeozoologist, investigates the bones of poultry and fish. In this way the soil tells us something about the diet of the medieval inhabitants of Brussels.

Reconstructing the landscape

We can also learn a lot about the landscape. The sediments also contain a lot of well-preserved pollen from trees and other plants in the surrounding landscape. And the thick layer of wood chips that was found can also help, says Deforce: "These pieces of wood are probably waste from making construction wood. The medieval people brought tree trunks directly to the place where the wood was needed and made them into beams and planks on the spot, such as here for making the quays. During this process wood chips were released, and some of them must have ended up in the water. This is very interesting for us, because it shows us which tree species they were using. We will also investigate whether there is a transition from better to less qualitative tree species throughout the centuries, which would indicate that there was already over-exploitation at that time.’ This was evident from similar research on a medieval layer of waste from Ghent.

The investigation of the many finds at Parking 58 will take some time to complete. The research of the coming months and years will help us to form a clearer picture of the port, the landscape and the inhabitants of Brussels during the Middle Ages. The works will continue to a depth of 15 metres for the construction of the new administrative centre of the City of Brussels.

 

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