A medieval type of Grubenhaus bakery/kitchen from Kent

by Jörn Schuster and Chris J. Stevens

In 1997, a subrectangular Grubenhaus was excavated near Manston on the Isle of Thanet. This building was located in the south-eastern corner of a medieval enclosure which also included a structure with masonry footings, possibly a small manor house. The Grubenhaus had an entrance ramp on its north-western side, flanked by two postholes placed on either side of the ramp near the edge of the pit. The pit was cut into the natural chalk and up to 70 cm deep. In the south-east corner, there was a subcircular hearth or oven measuring c. 1.5m in diameter.

Manston, Isle of Thanet, Kent International Business Park

Its base was constructed of a layer of red-brown clay laid on a bed of tabular flint nodules on top of the natural chalk rock which had been scraped flat. Compared to the base of the rest of the pit, the area of the hearth formed a raised platform. The northern side of the hearth/oven was formed by a narrow raised strip of rammed chalk. Beyond this, to the north was an oblong cut whose northern side consists of a wall of compacted chalk similar to that which separates it from the hearth/oven to its south.

From the pottery recovered from the various layers of the feature’s construction and decay, it appears to have a time span ranging from the late 12th - late 13th/early 14th century. Apart from an ashy layer, none of the excavated deposits suggested an obvious function for the installation, such as pottery or metalworking waste.

Comparable structures

While at the time no comparisons were known for a hearth or oven of similar construction from a domestic context in a Grubenhaus, the situation has changed profoundly in recent years. Wessex Archaeology has been able to excavate closely comparable buildings at Star Lane near Fleet on the Isle of Thanet, Fulston Manor near Sittingbourne and Leybourne (Fig. 2–4)

Fig. 2	Star Lane near Fleet, Isle of Thanet Fig. 3	Fulston Manor near Sittingbourne Fig. 4	Leybourne

Other examples have been forthcoming from Ickham (Fig. 5), two or more along the route of the A2 near Gravesend and at least 15 near Monkton on the Isle of Thanet (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5	Ickham Court Farm, Ickham Star Lane. Grubenhaus with circular domed oven (left) and oblong oven/hearth (right) Key to diagrams

The new discoveries, which range in date between the 11th and 14th centuries, have led to a better understanding of the various features discovered in the Manston Grubenhaus. Thus the large circular structures with their flint cobble base, covered by layers of smooth clay, appear to be domed ovens (Fig. 7). The postholes observed to one side of the Manston oven are most likely the traces of two large stones which supported the sides of the stoke hole. At Star Lane, where the oven walls survived to a height of 26cm, these stones were still found in situ (Fig. 2 and 6). At Ickham, the fired base of the dome had preserved the impressions of 59 stake holes which initially supported the structure (Fig. 5). While in some buildings, the installations next to the domed ovens are simple floor-level hearths (e.g. at Ickham), the oblong structure at Star Lane (Fig. 8) could either be a second oven or a raised hearth with an open top which could have received a large pot or cauldron.

Fig. 7	Star Lane. The domed oven with the layer of flint cobbles below the clay floor Fig. 8	Star Lane. Detail of the walls of the domed oven and oblong oven/hearth

What were the buildings used for?

At both Fulston Manor and Star Lane, environmental samples occasionally yielded quite large quantities of charred grain from the ovens themselves as well as other contemporary features. The grains were of hulled barley, still hulled, free-threshing wheat and rye. The finding of so much grain poses the question as to how charred grain came to be present within the structures. The grain had been threshed, winnowed, sieved and generally cleaned of all but the larger grain sized weed seeds. As such the charred remains represent either grain which was stored or had been taken from storage. There were no obvious signs of germination, so their charring during the preparation of malt is considered unlikely, although it might be noted that non-malted or partially germinated roasted barley can be used in brewing.

For bread, while some grain could be ground with small hand mills, most would have gone to the mill for grinding into flour. If the structures are bakeries then grain would have arrived from the mill fully-ground. However, the finding of quern stone fragments from backfill of the abandoned building at Fulston Manor suggests that the milling of the flour took place in the immediate vicinity. It has been suggested though that finds of grain-rich deposits from possible bread ovens may relate to their use to prevent the loaves sticking to the oven bars. Alternatively, grain may be thrown into the oven to test the oven temperature – when hot it will burst open. However, grains could also be rolled, cracked and crushed, and it may be that their presence signifies nothing more than general kitchen waste.

The remains found in the Grubenhäusern clearly indicate that they served some or various purposes in the production of food, among them probably the baking of bread, but other uses like cooking or even brewing would also be possible. It is probably justified to speak of them as bakeries and/or kitchens cum brewhouses.

Only for the rich? Or on the shelves of every farm?

The buildings at Manston, Fulston Manor and Ickham were located in enclosures including possible or definite manor houses, and the latter close to the village church. This proximity would support the possibility of seigniorial ownership of the facilities. Certainly, the existence of separate bake- or brewhouses is implied by a number of implements listed in the Gerefa (List B), an 11th-century guideline to the reeve on the efficient running of the lord’s farm. The various implements mentioned in List B appear to be grouped according to where they would be found in the farm.

Those grouped at the end of the list (fire-guard, meal-hopper, curfew, oven-rake and mash-shovel) seem to belong in the bake- or brewhouse. On the other hand, the large number of buildings now revealed near Monkton could mean that such bakeries/kitchens were far more common and perhaps not exclusive to manorial or ecclesiastical farms. Like at Star Lane (Fig. 9), the Grubenhäuser near Monkton were often located in the corners of rectangular enclosures along tracks.

As bakeries and/or kitchens, the Grubenhäuser presented here will have provided essential facilities required by every farmstead. So far, this type of building has only been found in Kent where it is especially common on Thanet (Fig. 10). We would be very interested to hear of any comparisons you may know, from Kent or beyond.

Fig. 9	Location of the Grubenhaus at Star Lane in the corner of a rectangular enclosure Fig. 10	Distribution map of Grubenhäusern with domed ovens and oven/hearths in Kent


The huffkin is a type of roll that was once well known in Kent. It is a light roll with a dimple on top. After baking, it was wrapped in a damp cloth to prevent the crust from becoming too crisp. During the time of the hop harvest it was sometimes made with hops, but there are also recipes that mention other ingredients like seaweed which would be in constant supply around the Kentish coast. It should be mentioned that we have no indication for the baking of this type of roll in the buildings described here.

Acknowledgements and references

The authors would like to thank Emma Boast (Trust for Thanet Archaeology) and Jon Rady (Canterbury Archaeological Trust) for discussing their results and providing archive material. Illustrations by Karen Nichols (Wessex Archaeology). Many thanks for useful discussions about details of the excavations also go to Andrew Powell, Kirsten Dinwiddy, Elina Brook and Phil Andrews (Wessex Archaeology) and Tim Allen (Oxford Archaeology), to Simon Mason (Kent County Council) for pointing out relevant new sites and to Dr Mark Gardiner (University of Belfast) for sharing his knowledge about medieval bakeries.


  • Powell, A.B., Barnett, C., Grimm, J., Mepham L., Phillpotts C. and Stevens, C.J., forthcoming, A medieval enclosure and bakery/brewery at Fulston Manor, Sittingbourne, Kent, Wessex Archaeology Monograph. Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology
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