Preventive archaeology operations in Brussels

The role of the Centre de Recherche en Archéologie et Patrimoine in preventive archaeology operations in the Brussels-Capital Region


The increased development of territory development projects in the Brussels region (rehabilitation of public or private buildings, excavation of underground car parks, creation of stormwater tanks, etc.) is leading to the irreversible destruction of archaeological remains both underground and in old buildings. In response to this work, in 2004 the authorities established a binding legislative framework to prevent the silent and irreparable erosion of a rich archaeological heritage. Thus, monitoring of planning permit applications allows public service archaeologists to target construction projects and plan preliminary archaeological interventions on the basis of a series of regional archaeological atlases.

These interventions make it possible to establish a diagnosis - via limited surveys - of the archaeological potential of the site, to determine its characteristics and extent. If this diagnosis is positive and highlights a scientific and heritage interest in the remains uncovered or the building investigated, an archaeological study project will be carried out to record this information and make it available to both researchers and the general public. This preventive archaeology therefore aims to safeguard the archives of the ground or in elevation before their complete disappearance.
Since 2009, CReA-Patrimoine has responded to 13 public procurements (six excavations and seven on old buildings). The sites studied as part of these public procurements cover a chronology ranging from the Neolithic to the present day.

Preventive archaeology at CReA-Patrimoine through 6 sites

In 2010, the preventive excavation of the Boitsfort-Etangs listed site confirmed the excellent preservation of the surface horizons on the site. Although the few structures uncovered do not illustrate the presence of Neolithic buildings or developments, the quantity of artifacts found underground confirms an intensive occupation, probably of a domestic nature, of the area enclosed by the fortifications. The technology and typology of ceramics and lithic furniture are in harmony with the attribution of the occupation to the Michelsberg culture.

CReA-Patrimoine also studied the remains of a farm in Gulde Casteel dating back to the 16th century in the commune of Boisfort between 2013 and 2014. This farm was an outbuilding of a 16th century pleasure castle. In the 17th century, the main building suffered a major fire. After this event, the use of the building will change and becomes more of a business and housing nature. In addition, in 1854, the construction of the Brussels-Namur railway line considerably reduced the size of the property. The buildings remained in existence until 1968 when they were destroyed during a campaign against the squalor of the housing. The new real estate project planned by the municipality was never carried out and the land was abandoned until 1975, when the Van Becelaere playground was built. These remains are an important and relevant testimony of rural life in the commune of Boitsfort during the Ancien Régime. 

More recently, in 2014 and 2015, the rescue excavations carried out on the site of the rue d'Une Personne made it possible to complete the results of the investigations carried out by the ULB during the 1990s on this downtown site, but above all to considerably amplify them by the surface area excavated (1000m2) and the depth of the surveys, which reached up to four metres in depth. This intervention made it possible to identify five main chronological phases ranging from the 12th-13th centuries to the 20th century. New data have thus been added to the study of the city's primitive landscape, in particular by highlighting agricultural or vegetable occupations. It is also worth mentioning the discovery of structures related to crafts and trade specific to the butchery trades: a shoemaker/cobbler workshop discovered in 1990 but completed by the CReA-Patrimoine excavation, a detrital pit containing a large quantity of cattle mandibles and horns as well as bones of other species whose presence is linked to oil production while the horns have been worked for the production of various furniture. This last study was carried out in collaboration with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. The ridge lines of the evolution of the plot within the islet were also drawn. In this case, the first evidence of construction dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The significant number of built structures found reflects a progressive densification of built spaces to the detriment of open spaces, a movement that began in the 15th century. This complexity and richness of Brussels' built heritage was also highlighted during the investigation of eight dwellings located along rue du Marché-aux-Herbes 46 and 50 as well as along Petite rue des Bouchers, 2-14 (2015). This housing complex was built during the reconstruction following the bombing of 1695 from remains dating back to the late Gothic period. In addition to these ancient nuclei, the analysis made it possible to trace precisely the chronology of this phase of intense reconstruction for each dwelling dated between 1695 and 1697. This rapid recovery of the city, after the disaster of 1695, was based on a massive reuse of material from the rubble, but also a series of measures to promote the construction sector, including the mass import of non-urban products from all over the Southern Netherlands, the United Provinces, the Baltic and Scandinavia.

At the same time, CReA-Patrimoine is gradually exploring civil and religious architecture. Thus, monuments as prestigious as the Brussels Town Hall or the convent of the Riches-Claires have been investigated by the laboratory through two public markets launched in the winter of 2015. For the Town Hall, the study revealed remains that probably predate the 15th century building. If the major stages of construction of this monumental building were indeed established by Brussels historians of the 19th and 20th centuries, this investigation made it possible to refute certain hypotheses on the development of this alderman's house, particularly from an old 14th century belfry. It also underlines that the Town Hall was not conceived as a single architectural programme, but is the result of successive contributions during the 15th century, adaptation or sometimes in-depth modifications, of old buildings integrated into each new project.
The study of the Riches-Claires site made it possible to establish in a precise way the general evolution, from the 17th to the 19th century, of the façades of the cloister and the buildings adjacent to this space for meditation and strolling. It is a relatively well preserved complex that constitutes one of the last precious testimonies of a cloister still in elevation in the city of Brussels.

Summary table of preventive archaeology projects in Brussels since 2010

2018 Étude archéologique sur les bâtiments sis 16-22 rue de la Samaritaine à 1000 Bruxelles [BR511-01] 
2016-2017 Recherche archéologique de deux maisons situées aux nos 13 et 14 de la Grand-Place [BR334-01]
2016 Recherche archéologique sur les façades de l’ancien couvent des Riches-Claires [BR092-04]
2015-2016 Étude archéologique des structures en maçonnerie de l’Hôtel de ville de Bruxelles – Grand-Place 
2015 Recherche archéologique du bâti d’un ensemble de bâtiments situé rue Marché-aux-Herbes 46 & 50 et Petite rue des Bouchers 2 à 14 [BR328-01]
2014-2015 Recherche archéologique sur le terrain sis rue Marché-aux-Herbes 68-70/ rue des Bouchers 37/ rue Marché-aux-peaux/impasse Saint-Pétronille/ impasse du Chapelet/ impasse de la Tête de Bœuf / rue d’une personne à 1000 Bruxelles [BR166-03/04]
2013-2014 Recherche archéologique sur le terrain sis à l’angle de l’avenue Van Becelaere et la rue du Bien-faire à Watermael-Boitsfort [WB008-01]
2013 Recherche archéologique sur le bâtiment sis Place du Grand Sablon 49 à 1000 Bruxelles [BR171-01]
2012-2013 Recherche archéologique sur le bâtiment sis rue du Marché-aux-Fromages 11 à 1000 Bruxelles [BR300-01]
2012 Recherche archéologique sur la place Saint-Job à Uccle [UC001-02]
2011-2012 Recherche archéologique sur le terrain sis bd de l’Empereur entre les numéros 34 et 36 à 1000 Bruxelles [BR081-03]
2011 Recherche archéologique sur le bâtiment sis Rue de Flandre 180, à 1000 Bruxelles [BR247-02]
2010-2011 Recherches archéologiques du site du Neckersgat à Uccle [UC013-01]
2010 Étude archéologique sur le site néolithique de Boitsfort-Étangs à Watermael-Boitsfort [WB002-03]