Medieval markets: A soil micromorphological and archaeobotanical study of the urban stratigraphy of Lier (Belgium)

Barbora Wouters, Yannick Devos, Karen Milek, Luc Vrydaghs, Bart Bartholomieux, Dries Tys, Cornelie Moolhuizen, Nelleke van Asch

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Market squares remain underrepresented in studies of archaeological soil micromorphology. In Lier, micromorphology was applied to gain understanding of the stratigraphy and formation processes of the medieval “Grote Markt”. Block samples were obtained from a sediment profile that spanned the 11th-15th century and contained three separate phases of thick, dark-coloured, humic, homogeneous layers - so-called ‘dark earth’. Combined with textural and archaeobotanical (seeds, fruits and phytoliths) analyses, the results shed light on the formation processes that shaped this site.

The oldest dark earth, dated to the 11th century, was characterized by agricultural activities. Next, a deliberate preparation of the surface took place in the form of truncation and local, small-scale levelling events. The second dark earth (12-13th century) formed as a result of intensive human activities, witnessing the site’s transformation to an urban space. This layer contained large amounts of organic matter and anthropogenic inclusions and developed gradually in situ. It likely represents an early market or open space close to dwellings or small courtyards. Units that contain evidence for intensive building activity separate the second and third dark earth, and are possibly the result of a spatial re-organisation of the square. The formation of the third dark earth, which started in the 14th century, is characterised by an intensification of traffic and craftworking activities. Surfaces may have been maintained by spreading organic matter such as leaves, sand and hearth detritus. However, there is no evidence for a kept, empty square before a thick layer of levelling sand was deposited (in the second half of the 14th century at earliest) and the market was cobbled. The analysis shows that mixed market activities took place in this intensively used zone, and presents a number of micromorphological characteristics and inclusions typical of a medieval market square in a temperate climate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)48-64
Number of pages17
JournalQuaternary International
Early online date14 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017

Bibliographical note

The authors wish to acknowledge the Town of Lier, which supplied funding for the fabrication of the thin sections. The micromorphological analysis was made possible by a PhD Fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) 11E0215N (BW), and the Centre de Recherches en Archéologie et Patrimoine (ULB) (YD). The 14C-dating of archaeological units and the phytolith analysis were funded by the Province of Antwerp/Provincial Archaeological Depot. The identification of chemical elements in metal slag was performed using a μXRF instrument acquired with a grant from the Hercules Foundation (UAB/1309) (with thanks to Karin Nys and Philippe Claeys, Vrije Universiteit Brussel). The authors also wish to thank Anton Ervynck (Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed), Richard Macphail (University College London), Christina Makarona (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Kristin Ismail-Meyer (IPNA, Basel), Lien Speleers (Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences) and Colin Taylor (University of Aberdeen) for their advice and assistance at various stages of this research, and the three anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback.


  • Soil micromorphology
  • Archaeobotany
  • Dark earth
  • Urban archaeology
  • Medieval town
  • Market


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