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Forgotten castle part of 5,000 years of history unearthed in Belgian fields

19:34 27/02/2020
A hunting ritual called ‘the unmaking’ is just one remarkable discovery at an archaeological site in East Flanders that contains remains from five centuries

If archaeology is all about discovering the past, then the Aalter-Woestijne project must rate as one of the most successful digs ever carried out in Flanders. In fields beside the Ghent-Bruges canal, archaeologists found significant traces of human activity from prehistoric times up to the 18th century.

These include a mysterious ritual landscape from the Iron Age, and a mediaeval castle that had disappeared from the historical record.

The dig in Woestijne, a district of Aalter in East Flanders, took place from 2010 to 2012. While some of the findings have appeared in archaeological journals, it is only now that a comprehensive report of the results has been published. The picture that emerges is of a rare “all-period” archaeological site.

“In many cases two or more periods may be present on one site,” says Koen De Groote, an archaeologist with the Flanders Heritage Agency and co-editor of the final report. “So, for example, when you have Roman finds there is often something from the Iron Age in the neighbourhood. But it’s rare to find this many structures in almost every period.”

‘Completely unexpected’

The Woestijne site initially caught the eye of archaeologists through aerial photographs taken in the 1980s. Patterns in the crops suggested there had been burial mounds on the land, and this was confirmed by a test dig carried out by Ghent University (UGent) in 1989.

The archaeologists also found traces of a Roman road, but not much more. “So we knew there was potential,” De Groote recalls, “but what we found was completely unexpected.”

The trigger for a more extensive excavation was the announcement that a business park was to be built on the land, exploiting the logistic possibilities of the near-by canal. This development work would most likely destroy any ancient remains, and so it was now or never if archaeologists wanted to see what was there.

Foundatoins of the western tower of the forgotten castle of Woestijne
Foundations of the western tower of the forgotten castle of Woestijne ©Flanders Heritage Agency

The 32-hectare site was surveyed in 2009 and an area of around 20 hectares selected for more detailed investigation. This made it one of the largest archaeological projects ever carried out in Flanders.

Two teams of four archaeologists went to work, advised by experts in specific periods from the Flanders Heritage Agency and UGent.

The oldest finds came from the Stone Age, suggesting that people lived there for short periods, perhaps as seasonal visitors. By the Bronze Age there was a permanent settlement: Along with the burial mounds, the outline of a house was found, rubbish pits, and traces of tracks crisscrossing the site.

The settlement was still there in the Iron Age, with signs of more burials, but there were also a series of ditches running for hundreds of metres across the site, accompanied by lines of posts driven into earth. Nothing like it had ever been found in Flanders before.

Burial mound

“We still don’t really understand what they were for, so we need to look for similar structures elsewhere in north-western Europe,” explains De Groote. One hypothesis is that this was an important place for honouring the dead, and the monumental landscaping had some ritual function.

For the Roman period, the dig uncovered more of the road, burial grounds and several small farmyards. One of the grave monuments is particularly unusual for the region – a large structure surrounded by a square palisade that suggests the burial of someone significant.

In the early middle ages, the site appears to have been largely abandoned, but it is occupied again from the 12th century onwards. There is evidence of two farms, which are later brought together to form a single estate. Milk bowls were unearthed, suggesting these were dairy farms.

“These are some of the earliest milk bowls found in Flanders, and in very large quantities, so you can see that people are exploring how they can exploit even marginal land.”

Reconstruction of the Roman burial monument
Reconstruction of the Roman burial monument ©Yannick De Smet/De Logi & Hoorne

But the most striking find from this period was the remains of a castle, undocumented in the historical record. Investigating a vague shadow in just one of the aerial photographs, the archaeologists uncovered the remains of the brick castle’s foundations, the moat and a vast number of red deer bones.

The castle was probably built in the last quarter of the 14th century by the Van Vlaanderen family, who were lords of Woestijne and allies of the Duke of Burgundy. As well as being a residence, the sturdy brick design was also defensive, and the castle may have played a role in managing the rebellious cities of Ghent and Bruges

“It’s surprising how little is known about this castle,” says De Groote. “There is a lot of existing literature on this family, but the castle isn’t mentioned. It disappeared at the beginning of the 16th century, so it also vanishes from the memory of the people. It was completely forgotten.”

‘The unmaking’

The deer bones also have a tale to tell. Firstly, they suggest the castle may have ended its days as a hunting lodge rather than the family’s principal residence. Secondly, it’s clear that they followed a Norman hunting ritual called par force. A custom among nobility, it saw the deer butchered in a specific way called “the unmaking”.

“Part of the animal is kept, part of it is given away and part given to the dogs,” De Groote explains. “We only found bones from these retained parts, completely in line with the Norman ritual. Until then we didn’t know that they followed that ritual here in Flanders.”

The latest finds on the site indicate the presence of a camp dating from the second quarter of the 18th century. This might have been military, or civilian, for example housing workers digging out the canal. Then there is a star-shaped ditch that could only be military, perhaps a fort built to control the canal or other transport routes.

And now, as Woestijne begins its new chapter as a business park, its 5,000-year history is filed away in the Heritage Agency’s depot. “Everything has been excavated. There is nothing left on the site except for the remains of the castle foundations, which are still beneath the ground.”

Photo top: Excavation of the remains of a 12th-century farmhouse on the Woestijne site  
©Flanders Heritage Agency

Written by Flanders Today