Pots of lords and peasants, soldiers and merchants. A multidisciplinary research on the consumption of ceramic in the Zwin-Scheldt estuary during the post Middle Ages (15th-18th centuries)

01 January 2013 → 31 December 2016
Regional and community funding: IWT/VLAIO
Research disciplines
  • Humanities
    • Archaeology
    • Theory and methodology of archaeology
    • Other history and archaeology
ceramics archaeological research English French Dutch Comparative Quantitative 16th Century 17th Century 18th Century Archaeometrical research Material culture studies Belgium Archaeology
Project description

The archaeology of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) in Flanders bears great potential in contributing to the European debate on early modern transformations and in raising public awareness of archaeology as a whole. Thus far, early modern features were  however mostly incidentally found on multi-period sites and not as a result from specific research questions. The need for a clear research framework has never been more relevant in view of the current commercial context of Flemish archaeology, in which the assessment, an evaluation of scientific potential, lies at the basis of heritage policy. The lack of knowledge on early modern archaeology makes that it will hardly be considered for further excavation and study. It is the aim of this thesis to illustrate the potential of archaeological research on this time period and of ceramics in particular. Why ceramics? First of all, pottery is cheap and, as such, it is an accessible good for all strata in society. The central position of ceramics in the daily routine is crucial to this thesis, as it will be argued that the way in which pots are used is socially conditioned. An understanding of these conditions becomes possible as ceramics are breakable and hardly have any secondary value. After breakage, crockery is thus often discarded, ending up in archaeological excavations in a pristine state of preservation. Moreover, early modern ceramics are found in large numbers, opening up the possibility for statistical analysis and comparison within and between sites. It results in a large body of data underlying any further interpretation. In its study of 16th- and 17th-century ceramics, the objectives of this thesis are twofold. First, an adequate, yet time-efficient methodology will be distilled from currentlyexisting methods, in turn allowing for a typochronology which correctly frames the pottery in time and space. As a second objective, the ceramic analysis will also explore the material attitudes of different social groups toward conflict, running as a leitmotiv throughout the early modern period. An answer to this question becomes possible through the detailed analysis of the attributes of which pots are composed (fabric, form, and decoration), since these are closely connected to the habitus of social groups. A change in any of the ceramic attributes may thus reflect how everyday routine was altered in order to deal with the troubles of war. In search of the multiple responses to transformations in early modern times, a selection of four sites has been made, representing different social groups:

(1) The castle of Middelburg (Maldegem)

(2) The convent of the Poor Clares in Middelburg (Maldegem)

(3) The Saint-Isabella fort in Ostend

(4) The Blauwhof in Steendorp (Temse)

The castle of Middelburg evolved from an elite residence in the 15th century to a military bulwark from the late 16th century onward. The study of two garderobe chutes from the lower court of the castle provides a typochronological reference horizon for ceramics in that late 16th century. Moreover, it reinforced earlier interpretations on a soldier’s material culture and their ways of dealing with the material culture of the ‘other’. The study of the ceramics found in the adjacent moat subsequently allowed to evaluate it as in assemblage in itself. Although moats are often estimated to be only of a secondary value, the ceramic analysis provided new and original insights flowing from the scale of the assemblage. It was possible to suggest a functional interpretation of the castle site and certain forms and categories were found to testify to the active way in which material culture was used to construct and continue the lord’s identity. Finally, the presence of food residues on several vessels inspired to make use of this generallyneglected source of information. The analysis provided new insights into the dietary and medicinal practices at the castle site and, moreover, illustrated how archaeologists should be wary to associate particular forms with a certain function. In that same town of Middelburg, a Poor Clares convent was situated. The study of a ceramic assemblage permitted a glimpse into the early years of that convent (1519-1550). Whereas these Poor Clares are generally believed to live detached from the secular world, the ceramic material suggests the opposite. Through the use of early maiolica drinking bowls, the Poor Clares namely inscribed themselves in an existing monastic tradition. Moreover, despite the rule of Saint Clare, enforcing a life of poverty, the ceramics testified to a comfortable material situation, in which drinking games served as an important waste of time. Finally, the material culture of the Poor Clares was found to differ from that of other religious orders in their lack of scratch marks applied to ceramic vessels, in turn pointing to a very own way of structuring the mealtime. The Saint-Isabella fort was one out of a chain of fortresses from which the Spanish army besieged the city of Ostend, from 1601 until 1604. The narrow date of the assemblage led to a better understanding of ceramics at the turn of the 17th century. Moreover, the spatial distribution of finds laid at the basis of a (re)interpretation of the functions associated with the excavated buildings. The undisputed military nature of the assemblage subsequently allowed to formulate some interesting insights into a soldier’s identity, of which the use of small cooking pots and the choice for not using the enemies’ products are arguably important components. Finally, the study of the assemblage considered the presence of women and children, which were undoubtedly present within these military environments. It was here that we touched upon the limitations of ceramic analyses, with a mere two finds possibly attesting to the presence of civilians. A final site was the Blauwhof residence of the Portuguese Ximenez family. An analysis of its ceramic collection (1595-1700) allowed a better insight into the lifestyle of migrants in the 17th -century Flemish countryside. The Ximenezes were found to possess of a hybrid identity, in which some Portuguese traditions were retained, while others were adapted to the new environment. Especially the Portuguese imports proved to be interesting. Comparison to 17th-century probate inventories revealed a paradox in the appreciation of Portuguese redwares and faience. While the former probably served in the imitation of court life, as an acknowledged object amongst the Antwerp elite, the latter functioned in a more intimate relationship between the people directly involved in purchasing, giving and receiving it as a marker of friendship, love and marriage. When the data of the four sites above is combined, it becomes possible to advance our typochronological understanding of early modern ceramics in Flanders. It will be argued that both regional and chronological variation remains to be found within the increasing standardisation of ceramic vessels. Concerning geographical differences, a first general divide should be made between the Southern and Northern Netherlands. It is believed that Flanders’s distinctive economic and political history results in a ceramic pattern that is not merely a reflection of the situation in the present-day Netherlands. Moreover, the study of categories, forms and vessel accessories indicated that further regional distinctions can be made within the county of Flanders. The current state of research allows to distinguish four areas with different ceramic traditions, being (1) the coastal zone, (2) inland Flanders, (3) the city of Antwerp and its hinterland, and (4) the city of Tongeren and its surroundings (Haspengouw). As a possible fifth area, the Waasland could be added as a transitional zone between the former three. These observations form the basis for a discussion on the questions concerning the material responses to transformations in early modern times. Material culture was found to be closely linked to practice. The different habits of social groups made that these practices could be distinguished and subsequently identified, although context information through additional (art-)historical sources remains necessary to do so. A soldier’s identity clearly speaks from the communal ways of eating, smoking and drinking. However, at the same time, soldiers cannot be regarded as a single entity. Pots did not mean the same thing to all soldiers, as seen for the different attitudes toward vessels bearing catholic meaning. However, ceramic analysis also proved to be a powerful method for the study of social groups tat were not directly harmed by the troubles of war, such as the Poor Clares or the Ximenez family. Despite the impact of war, no indications could be found for a limited access to the pottery market. This may well be the result of the durability of ceramics, which makes it possible to bridge periods of restricted access. However, the Eighty Years’ War did influence the choices made at a production level, but perhaps more important, the choices made by consumers. Material culture was the means par excellence to privately or publicly express allegiance to any of both sides of the conflict.