Sigrun Solbakken Tengesdal, archaeologist

In the Middle Ages, the bakestone was a common household item. A bakestone or griddle is a flat, thin slab of soapstone which is very well suited to heating, and which was used to cook food. It was particularly well-suited to baking different sorts of flat bread and cakes. The slabs were rounded, with a diameter of about 30-40 cm, and a thickness of about 1 cm. They are usually characterised by a groove pattern covering the entire bakestone, often on both sides.

Illustration from Olaus Magnus fra 1555.

From the excavations at Bryggen we have thousands of fragments of bakestones. The five Northernmost rows of houses alone have yielded over 2000 fragments. Some of the bakestones show signs of use, while others were found in buildings assumed to be warehouses, and seem to have been unused. This indicates that bakestones were not only used in the kitchens of Bryggen, but that it is highly probable that they were also traded with, and that Bryggen was the centre for such a trade. The bakestones were shipped to Bergen from areas like Kvinnherad in Hardanger, and possibly some parts of Trøndelag.

In the early medieval period, both men, women and children lived in the houses at Bryggen. However, during the 14th century, the Hanseatic Office became more influential, and there is a transition to a more institutional form of settlement, consisting only of boys and men. This influences the use of bakestones. In the material, bakestones grow more and more sparse and eventually disappear from both residential houses and other buildings. The Hanseatic merchants ate other types of bread, and had their own way of cooking and baking. They also had their own bakeries using brick ovens. It also appears that they were not trading in bakestones. Throughout the 15th century and up until the 18th century, bakestones are only found outside of the buildings, possibly used as paving stones in alleyways and similar places, due to their flat shape.

Fragment of medieval bakestone, Bryggen, Bergen. Photo: Sigrun S. Tengesdal.

In modern Norway, flatbread and lefse are still staples of our food culture. Archaeological excavations, such as at Bryggen, show that this tradition dates all the way back to the early medieval period. The large amounts of bakestone fragments tell us that this type of bread making was an important part of everyday life at Bryggen, but that it was substituted with other methods of preparing food when the Hanseatic merchants began to make their mark on the city. The preparation of food and cooking utensils constitute an important part of everyday life, and is something that differs from culture to culture. That this applies to the medieval bakestones at Bryggen, is clear – a change in culture immediately led to a change in the material culture of food.

 

Further reading:

Magnus, Olaus 1976 (1555):  Historia om de nordiska folken. Tredje delen (tolfte-sextonde boken). Tofters tryckeri ab, Östervalå.

Tengesdal, Sigrun Solbakken 2010. Å steike! En kontekstuell materialanalyse av steikeheller funnet i et bygårdskompleks i middelalderens Bergen.

Weber, Birthe 1989. Steinheller – en handelsvare. Fortiden i Trondheims bygrunn: Folkebibliotekstomten.

Kostveit, Åsta Østmoe 2005. Ja til takke. Flatbrød, lefser og annen takkebakst.