Multidisciplinary study of cellars and basements in Brussels (Middle Ages-19th century). A regional project aiming to improve the understanding of urban development, ancient architecture and built heritage management.
François Blary (dir.), Paulo Charruadas, Philippe Sosnowska, Benjamin Van Nieuwenhove
Cellars and basements regularly appear as a leading source of information to understand the logic of architecture and the evolution of the urban fabric. They are often among the least disturbed spaces in houses due to the long evolution of the building. They also preserve many chronological, architectural, constructive and functional clues shedding light on the building’s history. In addition to the architectural and heritage contribution of these spaces, their studies and mapping - at street, district and then city level - constitute a considerable asset for the understanding of urbanisation and pre-industrial urban planning. At the local level, this type of study makes it possible to grasp constructive particularities and opens up possibilities for comparison with other entities, regional, "national" and "international" (particularly in France, England and Germany, where the study of cellars seems to be the most advanced).
In Belgium, archaeological and historical research currently devoted to the study of these areas remains poorly developed, with the exception of a few isolated cases and programmes. The studies and inventories carried out in Kortrijk (late medieval period), Ghent (12th and 13th centuries), Mechelen (medieval and post-medieval period) and, currently in progress, Tournai are mainly mentioned. Concerning Brussels, little attention has been paid to the subject. For example, the architect and architectural historian Victor-Gaston Martiny drew up a rich synthesis of the house in Brussels, published in 1991, barely mentioning the question of cellars and basements.
In order to fill this gap, the Centre de Recherche en Archéologie et Patrimoine of the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Direction du Patrimoine culturel of the Brussels Regional Public Service (Urban.Brussels), in association with the Cellule Patrimoine historique of the City of Brussels, have been working together since January 2017 on an ambitious research project on these spaces in Brussels and its periphery from the 13th to 19th century.
While the investigation area is deliberately large to cover an unrivalled area (nearly 160 km2), it focuses on four specific urban areas and two peri-urban (former rural) areas. The central districts forming the area located within the first city wall (13th century) and in particular the Grand-Place district, on the one hand, the rue Haute, the Sablon district and the "Chaussée" (Steenweg) in the lower part of the city (rues Sainte-Catherine and de Flandre) between the two city walls (the second, erected in 1357-1387), on the other hand, constitute the basis for our reflection in an urban environment. This approach is complemented by an investigation in the historic centre of the village of Anderlecht (the so-called Rinck area) and around the abbey of La Cambre in Ixelles, both located in the immediate vicinity of the city. The choice of the latter two sectors is based both on the importance of the heritage structures conserved and the abundance of sources that concern them. They allow a reasoned comparison with points of non-urban settlements, one rural, the other monastic.
Fig. 1 : Map of Brussels by Jacques de Deventer dated mid-16th century (© Royal Library of Belgium, Cartes et Plans, no. 22.090), with indication of the priority areas for research (CAD: Benjamin Van Nieuwenhove © ULB)
Fig. 2 : Photography of the destroyed cellar of the Forest Abbey refuge on rue d'Or in Brussels (Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles, collection Iconographique, no. C3724)
The objectives of the project
The project, which deliberately places itself at the crossroads of the disciplines of archaeology, architecture, history and art history, seeks, on the one hand, to highlight the extensive documentation (grey literature) produced by the archaeological and heritage activities of the Direction du Patrimoine culturel of the Brussels Regional Public Service (urban.brussels) and the Cellule Patrimoine historique of the City of Brussels. This is in order to draw up a first inventory. On the other hand, it envisages through preventive archaeology or programme operations, supplemented by systematic prospecting, the collection of extensive documentary material, including photographs, plans, sections, 3D, but also a detailed recording of the built structures, gathering information on the materials and their implementation.
Particular attention is paid to the structuring of spaces, their functions and equipment. At the same time, a review of specific historical records allows these data to be supplemented by providing information on sponsors, owners and tenants, addressing in a more specific way the question of functions. Finally, the project is accompanied by research on the symbolism of places and the toponymic-odonymic context of the house, the courtyard and the street, private and public spaces. In this methodological context, the housing block forms a very important topographic anchor point. This division corresponds as closely as possible to the objectives set, in particular for the study of the old parcel and the road network. This approach allows, on a larger scale, to determine the possible specificities of each island and to highlight the connection points between the different assemblies.
This research should lead to the implementation, on the one hand, of a precise topochronology and a fine typography of cellars and basements, and on the other hand, of a mapping of these via the regional GIS, making it possible to better understand and characterise urban areas in Brussels, in particular the establishment of the medieval plot organisation. More specifically, the development of typochronology and topochronology, as well as the implementation of GIS-type mapping, will be tools that meet the objectives set by the Atlas of the archaeological subsoil of the Brussels region and thus help heritage managers to better date these areas and to better understand and even understand them. They will complement the Archaeological Atlas and contribute to the development of the thematic approach developed by the Region. In addition, they allow the inventory of Brussels monumental heritage to be updated. For the inhabitants of Brussels, it should lead to the presentation of an original synthesis on the history and material evolution of their city through exhibitions, conferences and publications for the general public.
Finally, the integration of students in art history, archaeology and history makes it possible to place the project at the heart of the training of tomorrow's heritage managers. On the one hand, the conduct of this research programme is an opportunity for these students to learn about archaeological and historical practice and to be confronted with the realities on the ground. On the other hand, it makes it possible to develop studies on Brussels through final studies, theses and dissertations taking as a framework the archaeological and real estate heritage of the city-region.
Fig. 3 : Photography of the cellar of the house 22 rue des Dominicains dated 15th or 16th century (photo: Benjamin Van Nieuwenhove © urban.brussels-ULB)
Fig. 4 :Photography of the vaulted cellar and one of the two stone columns of the cellar of the Mannenke Pis café 31-33 rue des Grands-Carmes in 1000 Brussels (photo: Sylviane Modrie © urban.brussels-ULB)
The BAS project in a few figures (May 2019)....
- It is two full-time researchers, one part-time researcher led by an academic;
- More than 2000 archive folders consulted, resulted in the creation of an inventory of 830 sites and the implementation of a systematic methodology for the regressive study of the houses of Brussels (huizenonderzoek);
- It is 16 preventive archaeological operations and three program operations in the historic centre of the city;
- It is also 38 prospected cellars;
- It is also 22 student assignments as part of the Tutorial course: Middle Ages;
- In all, there are about twenty cellars with remains from the late medieval and 16th century, including masonry dating back to the end of the 13th century, a century before the construction of the Brussels City Hall;
- It is three scientific papers, one paper for the public, a brochure for owners and tenants, the presentation of our work at about ten scientific meetings and the setting up of a general public exhibition presenting the stakes of the project;
- Finally, there are many students in continuing education (BAC3 to Master 2, Master of Specialisation) participating in archaeological interventions and coming from ULB, VUB, UNamur and UCL.
Fig. 5 : Ortho-photo of the south wall of the vaulted cellar of the house 5 rue de la Tête d'Or (CAD: Benjamin Van Nieuwenhove © urban.brussels-ULB)
Fig. 6 : Bachelor students surveying masonry from the late medieval period preserved at 22 rue des Dominicains (photo: Benjamin Van Nieuwenhove © urban.brussels-ULB)
Regional archaeology is also supported by a research project specific to building materials. For more information, see Projet TCA.