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Oldest Known Saltworks in Britain Found on North Sea Coast

Oldest Known Saltworks in Britain Found on North Sea Coast

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New excavations at an old Neolithic site in North Yorkshire have uncovered something truly remarkable. Under the direction of independent archaeologist Dr. Stephen Sherlock, a team of researchers found an underground carved-out structure that contained artifacts and telltale features of an ancient salt production site or saltworks. Radiocarbon dating data has confirmed that this salt making facility was in use nearly 6,000 years ago, placing its origin solidly in the Early Neolithic period.

First Neolithic Saltworks Found in Britain

Neolithic salt production facilities have been unearthed in other parts of Europe, specifically in France, Germany, and the Balkans. However, this is the first time such a site has been found in Britain. Previously discovered salt making installations could only be traced back to the Bronze Age, which makes this new discovery at the Street House archaeological excavation in Loftus, North Yorkshire the oldest saltworks ever found in Britain.

Map indicating the location of the newly-discovered Loftus Street House saltworks in North Yorkshire. (S.J Sherlock / Antiquity)

Map indicating the location of the newly-discovered Loftus Street House saltworks in North Yorkshire. (S.J Sherlock / Antiquity)

Inside a 21-foot (6.5-meter) underground chamber, which was first discovered following a geophysical survey of the site in 2011, the archaeological team found the remains of a brine storage pit, along with three hearths, many flint and stone tools, ceramic baked materials, and hundreds of pieces of Neolithic pottery, some of which were coated with traces of salt. Based on past archaeological work, it was fairly easy for Dr. Sherlock to identify this unique discovery as an ancient saltern, which is defined as an installation or designated location where salt is produced in large quantities.

Saltern viewed from the north, showing intense burnt horizon within the feature (S.J. Sherlock/ Antiquity)

Saltern viewed from the north, showing intense burnt horizon within the feature (S.J. Sherlock/ Antiquity)

Once radiocarbon testing confirmed that this site along the eastern English seacoast did indeed date back to the early Neolithic period (to approximately 3,800 to 3,700 BC to be exact), Dr. Stephen Sherlock knew that he’d discovered something that was rare in general and historically unprecedented in the United Kingdom.

“These findings from Street House begin to fill the current lacuna in evidence for the production of salt in Neolithic Britain, and are significant for our understanding of Neolithic diet , methods of food preservation and animal husbandry, as well as wider questions of distribution and value in British Neolithic society,” explains Sherlock in an article introducing his find in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity. The discovery “has the potential to influence future Neolithic studies considering subsistence, early technologies, and exchange mechanisms.”

Salt and the Evolution of Agriculture in Early Neolithic Britain

During the Neolithic period, the people of Britain were experiencing a profound shift in lifestyle, part of the so-called Neolithic Revolution . After centuries of existing as nomadic hunter-gatherers, they were now beginning to adopt and adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle centered on agriculture. In a society transitioning to plant and animal farming, salt would have been seen as essential for survival.

Salt became a valuable commodity in Neolithic Britain. (Grafvision / Adobe Stock)

Salt became a valuable commodity in Neolithic Britain. ( Grafvision / Adobe Stock )

The food preserving capacities of salt were its primary attraction, and salt-making installations would have been supplying a highly valued product to agriculturalists. Coastal or riverside locations would have been ideal for salt-making facilities, since manufacturers would have wanted to transport their products elsewhere for sale or trade. “At other Neolithic salt-working centers in Europe, the communities regulating the production and distribution of salt benefited from great wealth,” Dr. Sherlock noted.

Not surprisingly, the Street House saltern and saltworks shows clear indications of heavy and regular usage, highlighting the importance and profitability of the salt production industry. Nearby, excavations have found further evidence of a significant human presence in the area, including a funerary rock cairn, a mortuary structure, and a house. The geophysical survey that led to the discovery of the underground saltern indicated that this installation might be larger than what has been uncovered so far. It is possible that subsequent investigations may reveal new and important details about salt manufacture and associated activities at what was apparently a bustling Early Neolithic settlement.

Image showing some of the sherds found at the ancient saltern in North Yorkshire. (S.J. Sherlock / Antiquity)

Image showing some of the sherds found at the ancient saltern in North Yorkshire. (S.J. Sherlock / Antiquity)

Early Neolithic Salt Making Practices Confirmed

Based on the totality of his discovery, Dr. Sherlock offers a detailed reconstruction of how he believes salt was produced at the Street House site. The process would have begun with the collection of seawater, which would have been evaporated and concentrated into a brine solution before being transported to the site of the saltern. The brine would have been transferred to a storage tank, and then placed in ceramic vessels that would have been heated in the hearths while supported on stone or ceramic props.

As the brine was heated, evaporation would commence. Once that process was finished, crystallized salt cakes would be left behind. It would be necessary to break the ceramic vessels open to gain access to the cakes, which could then be shaped into units suitable for transport and exchange. The valuable salt cakes may have been traded for other goods, or actually used as a form of money that would be widely accepted because salt was so universally useful.

Among the artifacts found at Street House were Carinated Bowl ceramics and lithics, which are associated with a distinct period of Early Neolithic history in the British Isles. This Carinated Bowl pottery tradition was an import brought by farmers from northern France (from a region known as Nord-Pas de Calais) who were known to have migrated to Britain between 4,000 and 3,800 BC in search of fertile land.

These individuals may have introduced salt-making systems and technology to Britain, and their descendants may have been responsible for the construction of the newly discovered saltern on Britain’s North Sea coast. Nevertheless, salt-making technology may have been adopted by other population groups as well, through the process of cultural diffusion.

While other Neolithic saltworks likely existed along the British coast, this fascinating discovery may be difficult to duplicate. It is known that sea levels rose during the Early Neolithic period, and it is probable that many (if not most, or all) other ancient salt production sites in the region are now submerged beneath the waters of the North Sea . But now that the presence of salt production technology in Britain during the Neolithic period has been confirmed, the search for more saltworks is on and could eventually produce more exciting results.

Top image: The excavation of Street House saltworks, dating back 6000 years. Source: S.J. Sherlock / Antiquity

By Nathan Falde

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