Ximenez's 'Blauwhof,' a Luxurious Retreat with a Noble History: The Archaeological Campaigns from 1998 to 2004
Until recently, the site of Het Blauwhof was a pasture, recognizable only by the rectangular moat surrounding it. The archaeological remains of the country estate were preserved underneath. Preservation proved impossible due to its location within an industrial clay extraction project. But in 1998 the Archeolologische Dienst Waasland launched a large archaeological excavation of the site that lasted until 2004. Since the clay extraction progressed at a slow and steady pace, archaeological research on the terrain (approximately 13,000 m²) could be spread over several campaigns.
Het Blauwhof was located in a fertile rural area near the hamlet of Steendorp, part of the parish of Bazel. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Steendorp evolved into a semi-industrial center with several brick kilns near the river Scheldt. Bricks from these kilns were transported to the ever-expanding city of Antwerp, just a couple of hours upstream on the river. Steendorp and its rural surroundings were, at that time, part of Antwerp's range of influence and therefore familiar to the city's inhabitants, including the Ximenezes.
Het Blauwhof has been known to historians primarily as a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century noble residence in the countryside, but its roots date back to the medieval period. In official texts the manor, including its domain, is described as the seignory or estate of Leugenhage, named after one of its owners in the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century seignories like the Blauwhof were highly desirable commodities for the wealthy residents of nearby Antwerp, who transformed them into luxurious country retreats. The agricultural character of these estates was preserved, and the income of the farm was considered an additional advantage of ownership. The acquisition of a medieval rural estate with feudal rights was considered a good investment, and one which also gave the buyer the opportunity to acquire an official noble title, an aspiration common to the wealthy merchant class.
Duarte Ximenez purchased the property in 1595, and in the following years the complex was remodeled, acquiring the grandeur of a castle and the elegance of a town residence. After his early death in 1622 the estate came in to the hands of his younger brother Emmanuel. The family retained Het Blauwhof until the end of the seventeenth century. After the domain was sold by the Ximenez family it suffered from poor maintenance under a constantly changing series of owners. As a result, the impressive manor was demolished around 1770, and thereafter the site was turned into arable land.
After Duarte Ximenez purchased the property of Leugenhage in 1595, he had most of the existing courtyard, which dated back to the twelfth century, demolished. Duarte then constructed his grand palace. The architectural remains that came to light through excavation can be matched with the buildings seen on a seventeenth-century drawing (now preserved in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York) and an engraving in Antonius Sanderus's Flandria Illustrata (1641). These remains include the surrounding wall, the four corner towers, the stables with an external well, and the mansion.
Since only the foundations of the structures are preserved, the internal layout of the buildings remains uncertain. But the archaeological work has yielded important insights. One good example is the identification of the kitchen along the south side of the mansion, which was possible based on two pieces of evidence. First, at this location inside the building, a well was found that most likely was connected to a water pump, and second, an abundance of discarded household goods was found in the adjacent moat. On the basis of this concentration of dumped waste and kitchen utensils, we can also draw an excellent picture of the use of food as well as table- and kitchenware in this noble residence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
For the moment, our sources on Het Blauwhof are restricted to iconographical and archaeological data, and much of the latter is still awaiting detailed study. It is clear that such work should be complemented by the study of written sources. Archival work may also bring surviving inventories to light, and could help to solve additional questions. Cross-disciplinary research between archaeologists, historians, and art historians is needed to complete our picture of Het Blauwhof.
Van Vaerenbergh, Jeroen, Jean-Pierre van Roeyen, and Rudi van Hove. "Steendorp-Blauwhof." Annalen van de Koninklijke Oudheidkundige Kring van het Land van Waas 110 (2007): 430-446.