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Zoutleeuw: archaeological research in the historic town centre


Marc Lodewijckx, project manager
Lieve Opsteyn, scientific assistant
Fernand Kumps, technical assistant
Louis Wouters, conservation officer


Fig 1: Aerial photograph of the city centre of Zoutleeuw at the end of the investigationZoutleeuw is a small town in Central Belgium, approximately 60 km east of Brussels (figs.  1 and 2). The old name of the town was Leeuw ( Lion) and it was one of the seven towns of the Duchy of Brabant. It owed its wealth to its port and its location on the road leading from Bruges to the east, to other Brabant cities such as Brussels, Leuven, Tienen and Leeuw. The historical documents for Zoutleeuw are extensive. Literary sources tell us that Leeuw was already fortified with walls, gates and a moat before 1133 and that a second wall was built between 1330 and 1350. The oldest town plan of Zoutleeuw that has been preserved (fig. 3) is a map from the Stedenatlas (City Atlas) by Jacob Van Deventer, dating from 1560 (Madrid, Royal Library) and presents an aerial view of the city and shows a number of historically known features.


Fig. 2: Topographical map of Zoutleeuw Fig 3: Map of Zoutleeuw from Jacob van Deventer’s Stedenatlas (City Atlas), 1560 (Madrid, Royal Library)

Until we began our investigation, there were few tangible pieces of evidence regarding everyday life in Zoutleeuw in the past. In fact, no archaeological excavations had ever been carried out in the actual city core, although smaller digs had been made in the former citadel (1980), in the beguinage (1990), in the former monastery of the Kapelbroeders (1991) and on the Castelbergh motte (1992-1993). However, these sites yielded little archaeological material that could shed light on the everyday objects use used in the past by inhabitants of Zoutleeuw.

For several years, plans had been discussed about renewing the canalised part of the Kleine Gete where it runs through the centre of Zoutleeuw. Work finally began in the autumn of 1994 and was expected to continue for several years. Although the possibility of archaeological intervention had been foreseen, in practice the available financial means proved to be very limited and were provided by the Province of Vlaams-Brabant, the City of Zoutleeuw and the Department of Archaeology of the K.U. Leuven. In addition, we were given welcome support from the planning bureau MBM, in Linter, and the contractor, P. Roegiers, in Kruibeke.

The river passage through the city and the port

Fig. 4: Photograph of the find location in the riverbed of the Kleine GeteThe most interesting part of the groundwork was the removal of the revetment and the exploration of the riverbed of the Kleine Gete (fig. 4). Beneath the upper debris deposits we found well-preserved layers with abundant archaeological material. This proved to be very fragmented but was collected as far as our resources permitted. Along the sides of the construction pit we found the remains of the original revetment and of the paling of the wharves. The paling consisted of a row of pointed timbers, which had been preserved to a length of, at most, 130 cm. The timbers stood at a distance of about 70 to 100 cm from each other. Behind the timbers we found the remains of crossbeams and heavy branches, broken in some places, which originally held back the layers of loam and sandy loam of the original riverbanks. In several places one could see that the paling had been frequently repaired.

The two rows of timbers along the banks of the Kleine Gete river stood approximately 7 m apart from each other. This means that the former riverbed, as well as the port channel to Zoutleeuw, was a little wider than the present waterway. At this moment it is not yet clear to which period the paling construction dates back. It certainly does not belong to the oldest phase of the port. The oldest finds in the construction pit, which date back to the 12th century, were recovered below the lowest point of the timbers. On the basis of the finds at the bottom, between the timbers, which included a golden coin inscribed with the name of William V of Bavaria (1350-1389), we believe that the paling was probably constructed in the 14th century. In the 16th century at least a part of the wooden revetment was replaced by a quay wall with stone foundations and a brick superstructure (fig. 4).

The exploration of the riverbed

Most of the material was recovered from the bottom of the construction pit, where it was in reasonably good condition, especially along the sides of both riverbanks. With the help of all parties responsible for the site, a small, well-insulated construction pit was made which allowed us to carry out a systematic excavation of a small surface of the riverbed and also to take sieve samples from dateable layers. The amount of archaeological material recovered from this emergency excavation was enormous, and amounted to about 1/3 of the volume of soil that was displaced. Almost all of the material dates back to the 14th and the early 15th centuries.

The soil samples for macro-botanical research were wet-sieved through a 5 mm mesh and the remains that were suitable for determination were studied by Linda Huysman. The diversity of the botanical remains was, of course, great. Plants worth mentioning were sweet cherry (Prunus avium), grape (Vitis vinifera), plum (Prunus domestica), walnut (Juglans regia), hazelnut (Corylus avellana) and various species of buttercup (Ranunculus sardous/arvensis/repens). It is noteworthy that the remains of most fruit species were markedly smaller than present-day varieties.

The animal bones were largely collected manually and analysed by Wim Van Neer (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren). Most came from large domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and pig. Through additional collecting with a 1 mm mesh sieve, we also obtained information about the smaller animal species, in which the remains of chicken, represented by bone fragments as well as eggshells, were dominant. In the freshwater fish category, remains of eel, perch and cypriniformes were recorded. The remains of salt-water fish, including haddock, plaice and herring, and the shells of oysters, cockles and mussels, illustrate the import of products from the coastal area, which was already well organised in the late Middle Ages. Taken together, the finds demonstrate that it was normal to discard not only kitchen and food remains into the river, but also offal and dog cadavers.

Pottery and local production

The pottery recovered during the renovation work on the banks of the Kleine Gete is very varied, but also fragmented a lot because of river currents. The oldest ceramics found are shards of grey pottery and imported high-quality pottery of the Andenne and Elmpt types. The grey pottery is wheel-thrown and of excellent quality; it was probably produced locally. The most characteristic form is the globular pot, but other forms also occur, including a rare cup on a pedestal. It is remarkable that pottery from the Elmpt and Brüggen regions in Germany was found in Zoutleeuw. The Elmpt pottery is wheel-thrown, has a white to grey fabric and is typically blue-grey on the outside because of the reduction-firing process employed. Pottery production in Elmpt began in the late 11th and lasted until the early 14th century. Mainly fragments of larger pots were recovered in Zoutleeuw. They probably served as containers for merchandise.

Andenne ceramics were produced in several workshops along the Meuse river, mainly between 1075 and 1375, with a peak in the 12th century. This type of ceramic is characterised by the superior quality of the clay, blanche derle, which has a very fine texture and is light in colour. Andenne pottery is characterised by a colourless plumbiferous glaze, which was applied as a band to the shoulder and neck. In Zoutleeuw, the most common forms are spherical pots with a lenticular base and an undercut rim.

From the 14th century onwards, red pottery fired by oxidising firing took the place of the grey reduction-fired pottery. Enormous quantities of red pottery, in all kinds of forms and for any purpose, were recovered from the bed of the Kleine Gete river. They represent only a tiny fraction of the amount that was dumped into the river or ended up there accidentally. Most fragments and shards date from the period between the 14th and 17th centuries. The most common form is a three-legged cooking pot (grape). The rim profile is triangular or simply thickened above a short, outward curving neck. The upper half of the wall may be ribbed. Various other types of pots and bowls occur, which often have a lenticular base, triple feet, and which may have ears and a spout. Skillets, strainers, candle-rings, stoves, handled pots, beakers, dishes, chamber pots, arbarellos and all other forms of red pottery were found. Many plates in red clay, as well as pots and lids, have a striking decoration of white-firing slip. Red clay tableware, such as jugs and jars, are relatively rare after the 15th century. In contrast, the huge amount of tableware from later periods, made of Rhineland stoneware, testify to the wealth of the average inhabitant of Zoutleeuw. Fig. 5: Some examples of the local pottery industry in Zoutleeuw as they came out of the mud

A local potter was working by the port, in the centre of the city, at least as early as in the 14th century. In the riverbed we found many wasters of a grey-brown colour with a sparing use of glaze (fig.  5). The most frequently occurring form is a spherical jar with a high shoulder and a straight, almost cylindrical neck (fig.  6). The rim is pronounced, having a ridge, and the jar is provided with a vertical ear from the rim to the shoulder. The belly is usually smooth without any decoration, although some smaller jugs and jars have a ribbed wall. The pots are high-fired and the fractured surface of the shards is grey to red. The outside wall is Fig. 6: This large jar was discovered intact in the riverbed of the Kleine Gete and forms a typical product of a local pottercovered with a thin, matt dark brown to purple brown layer of slip, which was not applied evenly, giving the pot a spotted appearance. On the shoulder, a dark purple brown patch of glaze was generally applied, which is as good as an identifying mark of this type of ceramic. The form of the pots, and especially the rims, is strongly reminiscent of the production centres in the Meuse region such as Amay, Huy and Andenne. We suspect that, when the pottery industry in these centres began to decline, for whatever reason, the potters moved to the newly founded cities and continued production with local clay for these expanding markets.

A limited number of the ceramics are made up of white or yellowish ware and were probably imported from the Meuse region. The forms are limited to small (cooking) pots, bowls, strainers and plates. The receptacles are usually covered with a layer of green lead glaze

Of the characteristic light grey stoneware products of Siegburg, many shallow bowls with thumed pedestal foot, upright rim and applied prunts, in particular, were found in Zoutleeuw, but unglazed funnel-necked beakers and mugs, pitchers with spherical bellies and high, straight necks, and tall, slender Jacoba jugs with thumed feet, body cordons, rilling and ring handle are also well represented. Many have a moulted decoration and thick streaks of ash-glaze. Of the products from later ages, the cylindrical tankards (Schnellen) were especially popular and often have a moulted decoration.

Fig. 7: A Raeren mug with a face with applied and stabbed featuresProducts from Langerwehe, especially the inverted double-handled cups and ovoid jugs with frilled foot and ring handle, found their way to Zoutleeuw. The best stoneware products come from the production centres in Raeren, Aachen, Cologne and Frechen, and the Westerwald region. The pots are beautifully finished and are covered with a salt glaze. The classic Raeren jug has a spherical body with a cylindrical neck and a pinched foot ring. Most jugs, bottles and pitchers are undecorated or have a face with applied and stabbed features (fig.  7) or a moulded bearded facemask in high relief on the neck, the so-called Bartmann jug. In the second half of the 16th century, production in Raeren changed fundamentally when a new generation of potters came into their own. The baluster jugs had turned bases and strap handles and were applied with medallions or relief-moulded friezes around the neck and the body, sometimes containing the merchant’s mark. Apart from the jugs and jars, many globular mugs with squat cylindrical necks and straight-sided tankards with cordons around the upper and lower body (Humpen) and similar tableware were found. From the end of the 16th century cobalt-blue painting was used under the salt glaze. The products from Westerwald are characterised by applied decorations that cover the whole surface. Typical features are the palmettos or rosettes that were stamped or applied, often in combination with incised ornaments.

Majolica and faience come from several flat plates with a clearly marked foot ring. The decoration consists of lines, and floral and geometrical motifs in blue, grey, yellow and red.

The glass from the riverbed was very fragmented. Besides fragments of window glass and coarser glass from objects in everyday use, many small fragments of ornamental glass were retrieved. The oldest fragment is the fragile base of a small Berkemeier beaker from the second half of the 16th century.

Organic materials

Hundreds of late medieval soles were recovered from the bed of the Kleine Gete river. The stitch seams, small holes along the sides, are quite recognisable but, in most cases, the thread has disappeared. Soles from the 13th and 15th centuries are usually pointed at the front. The soles of the mules from the first half of the 16th century, on the other hand, are very wide and rather squat. Many soles were also found with a raised wooden heel. The uppers consisted of one or more pieces of leather, sometimes provided with impressed or moulded decorations. A small children’s shoe has been preserved integrally. It fits closely around the foot, high on the instep, and has the fastening on the side. The uppers have been made of two pieces of leather that are stitched together.

Fig. 8: A patten with wooden under-soles with metal band with small rivets to attach the leather upper partIn the Middle Ages, people wore wooden pattens when going into the street. Such footwear had wooden under-soles, which were thickened beneath the tread and the heel (fig.  8) . The upper part of the patten strap might be an elaborately decorated band of leather that was attached to a metal band with small rivets. The leather (pointed) shoe would be eased into it and in this way was protected from the irregular cobblestones, mud and dirt.

Besides soles, two decorated knife sheaths were found. The many fine snippets of leather found are convincing proof that there was a leatherworker’s workshop in Zoutleeuw. The snippets are small pieces that were left over when the shoe parts were cut out of a sheet of leather, or are waste from sewing and trimming the shoe.

Although many pieces of wood were recovered, there were only a few objects that had any archaeological value. A wooden whistle, 5 cm long, does not have a pronounced mouthpiece, and has a round hole on the side. Two (decorative) grooves have been made along the lower side. Whistles could be made of wood or bone. A bone whistle found in the Kleine Gete was carved from a goose leg. It is a straight hollow cylinder that was cut to a length of 7.5 cm. At the top end a vent-hole has been cut out of the bone. Until the 16th century, wool cards were also carved from bone. These cards are elongated combs with long teeth on one side or both sides. A specimen from the Kleine Gete is slightly curved and, on one side, the incised teeth are still easily recognisable. The other side has partly broken off and is somewhat abraded.

Metal objects

During the work activities, 28 coins, 4 jettons and 2 leaden cloth seals were recovered. They date from the 14th to 18th centuries and were determined by Prof Simone Scheers. They are made of gold, silver or a copper alloy, and, in spite of their paucity, provide some information about coin circulation in Zoutleeuw during these five centuries. Almost all of the coins are of low value and were used for daily expenses. From the 14th and 15th centuries we find mites and double mites, and half and whole silver groots, from the 16th to 18th centuries copper dutes and liards. The only coin of a comparatively high value is the gulden of count William V of Holland, which was not used in everyday monetary transactions.

The number of metal objects retrieved from the riverbed is very large and the finds are very diverse. The necessary conservation treatment was carried out by Louis Wouters. The metal objects can be divided into a number of broad categories. Besides coarser iron objects such as rivets, hooks, door and gate fittings, locks, technical instruments and farm implements, we retrieved many well-made metal objects composed of all kinds of alloys. Personal decorations, kitchenware and tableware are most abundant. In addition, there are objects that are connected with various household and craft activities, along with weapons, parts of musical instruments and a large variety of other metal objects and fragments, the purpose of which is not clear.

In the category of personal decoration, we include brooches, pins, buckles, belt fittings, belt tongues, bag handles, etc. The variety of the metals (bronze, copper, iron, gold) and techniques applied may indicate social distinctions or functional differences between items in daily use and accessories for festive occasions. Metal utensils were introduced gradually into cooking and table culture. Apart from a number of kettles and metal instruments for kitchen use, tableware, in particular, deserves mention; finds in this category include a very large number of knives, some of which have beautiful inlays. As regards household items, we found needles, pins, scissors, thimbles, candlesticks and a candle snuffer. A mouth drum or Jew’s harp testifies to a certain level of musical sophistication in the inhabitants of Zoutleeuw, whilst weapons such as swords, daggers, spurs and many cannonballs point to the insecurity of life.

The first city walls of Zoutleeuw

Zoutleeuw owed its economic prosperity to its port and the activities that were directly related to the port area. That is why, as early as the beginning of the twelfth century, the Count of Leuven erected the first ring of walls around the city. Historical sources are somewhat vague about the building process and do not supply precise dates about these first fortifications. It is certain, however, that they date from before the year 1133, because a chronicle from the abbey of Sint-Truiden mentions the closed gates of Zoutleeuw, which once prevented armed forces from the city of Sint-Truiden marching straight into the city. Some features referring to the 12th century walls have been incorporated in the present cityscape. For example, part of the left side of the town hall, which was built on the foundations of the first wall, is made of natural stone.

Fig. 9: Photograph of the tower of the watergate of the first city wallThe groundwork at the Kleine Gete was not carried out in places where more information about the first city wall was likely to be gained. But when concrete steps were built in the northern part of the works, a wall was discovered which proved to be the foundation of a semicircular tower (fig.  9) . Its diameter was circa 2.5 m. The facing stones had been cut in a pyramid shape with a rounded outer side and laid with the pointed end positioned towards the middle. The interior of the tower foundations consisted of blocks of calcareous sandstone. Contiguous to the tower, the base of the city wall was uncovered, which was made of calcareous and ferruginous sandstone and runs beneath the present paving. The tower stood on the left bank of the Kleine Gete and, together with a second tower on the right bank, formed a so-called watergate on the downstream side of the city. The gate is clearly marked on Van Deventer’s map (fig. 3). The remnants of the left tower have, in the meantime, been completely removed. The foundations of the right tower are probably still present in the subsoil.

The second wall around Zoutleeuw

The first wall soon proved to be too constrictive for Zoutleeuw’s growing population. Out of necessity people settled outside the city walls. After 1330 large-scale city works were undertaken to increase the city’s surface area and to enable the defence of these new quarters. Simultaneously, the central market was expanded to create space for a number of important buildings. It took twenty years to build the new wall and its five new gates. When building the wall, suitable stones from the superstructure of the first wall were reused to spare material.

Fig. 10: Photograph of the wastewater collection work with the open containerThe wastewater collection work on the west and south sides of the city presented an ideal opportunity for recovering new data about the course of the second wall. New, three metres deep trenches were dug, through which an open container was drawn to prevent collapse of the trench walls when the sewage pipes were laid (fig.  10) . The soil composition was the same along the whole stretch: the topsoil was a thick brown make-up layer, beneath which there was a thick layer of grey and heavy clayey soil mixed with shells and other organic material, underlain by black peat. The trenches were filled up as soon as the sewage pipes were laid. The works were completed promptly, so that no time was left for any archaeological investigations. Nevertheless, we made some interesting observations.

In the northwest of the city, at the level of the watergate of the first wall, two parallel walls, running in a west to east direction and made of stone and brick, were broken through. The two walls stood in the projected part of the access gate on the Kleine Gete and it is likely that they were part of the second city wall where it replaced the first one in that location. The parallel walls may have formed the foundation for the inner and outer facings of the city wall. An oak construction, consisting of three parts, appeared from beneath these sturdy walls (fig.  11). On two girders lay a continuous row of flat beams which were joined together with mortise and tenon joints. Beneath these beams, square vertical beams had been driven which were also connected with mortise and tenon joints. These beams had a maximum length of 4.5 m. The oak-beam construction gave additional support to the walls, which would otherwise have subsided into the soggy subsoil. Dendrochronological investigation of two beams, carried out by the Ring foundation of the National Service for Archaeological Heritage (ROB, Netherlands) determined that the probable felling date was AD 1188. Fig. 11: Photograph of the wooden foundation of the second city wall

Towards the southwestern part of the city, several constructions in stone were broken through. A semicircular wall fragment proved to be part of the outer mantle of a tower. On Van Deventer’s map this tower is situated at the southwest corner of the wall. This corner tower afforded optimum protection of the city wall towards the north and south. It probably was a semicircular, hollow tower that was fitted into the wall.

The watergate

On the left bank of the Kleine Gete, digging machines broke through the front of a large stone structure that was as yet unknown. It proved to be the left bastion of the watergate of the second city wall, once protecting the entry of the Kleine Gete into the city. Because of the construction of a new complex of floodgates in the immediate vicinity of the watergate, and anticipating the construction of a new footbridge, we pressed for an investigation of any archaeological remains in the soil. Fortunately, additional funds were supplied for these activities.

Fig. 12: Photograph of the original watergate of the second city wallThe groundwork confirmed our expectations. Within a couple of days, with the help of a crane, a monumental structure was laid bare, which consisted of two rectangular bastions with a three-quarter round tower at the front (fig.  12) . The plinth and a piece of the superstructure of these bastions had been preserved. The right bastion was largely intact, but it could not be excavated fully along the right and rear sides, because it stood on private property. The left bastion was freestanding, but was damaged especially at the front. Part of the contiguous city wall was uncovered where it passed the two bastions. The whole complex can be interpreted as the remains of the monumental watergate of the second wall around the city of Zoutleeuw.

Fig. 13: Photograph of the reconstruction of the watergateBoth bastions had a plinth of irregular large and small quartzite stone blocks, interlaced with bricks here and there. The bottom rows, by contrast, consisted of flat quartzite stones, which probably served as base plates. No more than eight rows of the superstructure had been preserved, made up of more or less square stones that were very regularly placed and cemented with lime mortar. The three-quarter towers were built with pyramid-shaped facing stones that had the pointed ends towards the centre. The curve of the left bastion was only preserved over a short distance, because the front side was destroyed by the digging machines used in the wastewater collection work. The 2.66 m broad rear sides of the bastions were well-preserved up to a maximum height of 1.5 m. The distance between the inner walls of the two bastions was just 4 m. The straight wall along the Kleine Gete measured 8.3 m and was preserved on both sides up to plinth height (0.6 m). At 5.15 m from the back there was a 0.3 m wide groove on either side, in which lay a wooden beam that bridged the full width of the bedding. At 6 m from the back there was a second 0.1 m groove on both sides of the passage. The two pairs of grooves probably served to enclose iron gates on one side and wooden shutters on the other side, intended for regulating water flow into the city. At the place where the Vloedgracht (flood canal) branches off, a lock had been built; we found the remains of the last version of this lock. This location is still called De drie sluizen (‘the three locks’) locally, which is a decisive contributory fact in regarding the watergate as a lock complex.

Fig. 14: Photograph of the rebuilt watergateWhat remained of the bastions was considered too unstable and too small to construct the new bridge on. The commissioning authorities decided to demolish them, but also investigated the possibility of building a replica of the original watergate in the same location on a 1:1 scale (fig.  13) . The facing stones were recovered during demolition for reuse in the new structure. With the financial support of Aquafin, the water service of the Flemish Government, the watergate was rebuilt in concrete in the same size as the original structure. It can be regarded as a ‘reminiscence’ in concrete, but with the facing stones reused. The construction of the footbridge in iron serves as a reminder of the original portcullis (fig.  14) .


The circumstances in Zoutleeuw did not allow a thorough archaeological investigation. In fact, by and large we had to limit ourselves to recording the structures that were uncovered photographically, making sketches of the actual find situations and collecting materials to obtain a picture of the past which was as complete as possible. The principal reason was the poor integration of the archaeological dimension in the original plans. As a consequence, designers and contractors were insufficiently aware of the possibility of a rich archaeological heritage occurring in the subsoil. Offsetting this to a degree, we were met with goodwill in all the phases of our investigation, from the persons responsible for policy, from the managers of the building site and from the inhabitants of Zoutleeuw. We wish to thank them all for their interest and support.

The archaeological investigation in Zoutleeuw was concluded with a successful exhibition of the finds and the research results, which were publicly displayed in the historic town hall between 3 August and 27 October 1996. This was largely the merit of Lieve Opsteyn (Opsteyn 1996). Later on, the finds were handed over to the City of Zoutleeuw by the University of Leuven. The objects have since been part of the permanent exhibition in the town hall. In this way we hope to give greater publicity to the varied archaeological heritage of our historic cities in general and of undervalued Zoutleeuw in particular.


Opsteyn L., Grote vondsten uit de Kleine Gete, De Brabantse Folklore en Geschiedenis, 289, 1996, 126 pages.

Opsteyn L., M. Lodewijckx, F. Kumps, L. Wouters, Stadskernonderzoek te Zoutleeuw (Vl.-Brab.), Archaeologia Mediaevalis, 19, 1996: 60-61.

Opsteyn L., M. Lodewijckx, F. Kumps, L. Wouters, Grote vondsten uit de Kleine Gete, Stadskernonderzoek te Zoutleeuw (Vl.-Brab.), Archaeologia Mediaevalis, 20, 1997: 83-84.






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