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STONE OVENS IN VILNIUS

Dainius STRAZDAS

 

This article examines sixteenth-seventeenth century ovens of a specific construction that have been found in Vilnius during archaeological excavations. Massive oven walls, arches inside the oven, and a small, square, brick platform opposite the oven predominate in the plan of these ovens. Despite minimum differences that occur in the scale of the ovens, their structure usually remains the same: an oven chamber, made of uniform-sized brick arches (usually 3-4), and a platform. Large stones, which are heat-blistered and sooty, are always found inside or beside the path leading to these ovens. Chimneys are rarely found in ovens of this construction. (If any existed, they have usually not survived.) The drawings of the reconstructions of the ovens, which have been found, were made using archaeological material.

Descriptions and iconographic material of ovens of a similar construction are encountered in the territories of modern Switzerland and Germany as well as in Scandinavia. Usually the authors describing them characterise them as stone ovens. It is proposed that the ovens found in Vilnius should also be called by this term, stone ovens (Lith. akmenų krosnis, Ger. steino-fen, Latv. akmenų krasns, and Rus. kamennaja pečj). The first mention of similar ovens is found in the (ninth century) plan of the Abbey of St. Gelleri (Switzerland). It is believable that the construction of the oven in question was created from the marriage of the traditions of the Roman hypocaustum and ancient stone hearth. The earliest ovens of this type in Lithuania, according to the author's data, are the ovens of the heating system in the castle on Trakai Island (beginning of the fifteenth century). Stone ovens were used for diverse purposes. As is seen from the examples from Medieval Germany (seventeenth century) and Mariemburg, the capital of the Teutonic Knights (thirteenth-seventeenth centuries), buildings were heated with these ovens (in which case they used to have a chimney); at the beginning of the nineteenth century such ovens were used in saunas in Finland; and meals used to prepared over these ovens in Estonia. After reviewing Lithuania's ethnographic material, it emerged that stone ovens were intensively used in drying houses in the territory of Lithuania until the mid-nineteenth century. Here and there they were used until the Second World War. It was characteristic for nineteenth-twentieth century ethnographic ovens to be marked by a certain diversity while archaeological ovens are fairly austere, uniform structures. It would seem that steinofen reached the territory of Lithuania after having already become a set type of oven and only later acquired regional features. What was the function of these ovens in sixteenth century Vilnius? Some of the ovens definitely warmed buildings and some could have been used in drying houses and saunas. Some of them, however, could have also been used for drying malt, i.e. germinated barley for beer production. From ethnographical sources it is known that beer brewed from malt dried in the opening (azanyčia, arnyčia, džiuvarnė), set over the oven, in the drying house's ceiling was especially highly esteemed, even having a specific term: dūminis alus (smoky beer). Sixteenth-seventeenth century inventories contain information about the existence of a separate building: a malt kiln. More is also known about the malt master's shop, which engaged in the sale of the semi-processed beer ingredient, malt. The sixteenth century traveller, Braun, asserts that Vilnius residents were 'drowning in beer'! From a practical perspective, where did they obtain larger quantities of malt which were not for household needs but for sale? The capacity of a steinofen is fairly greater than, for ex., the capacity of a baker's oven... It should be supposed that the stone ovens found here and there by archaeologists were also used for the production of malt.