The discovery of the remains of a salt mine in a coastal Neolithic settlement in the north-east of England showed that local residents had been mining salt by evaporation from seawater around 3800-3700 BC. With the help of ceramics that have preserved traces of salt production, it was possible to establish that the local Neolithic tradition appeared thanks to immigrants from the continent.
The earliest evidence of salt mining in early Neolithic Europe was found in Neolithic settlements in the Balkans (first half of the 6th millennium BC), in Catalonia (late 5th – early 4th millennium BC), and in the west of France (late 4th – early 3rd millennium BC) era).
The earliest British finds related to salt production came from Somerset and date back to the Late Bronze Age (circa 1400 BC). Scientists have not yet discovered earlier salt pans, despite the abundance of archaeological sites from the Neolithic era in Britain.
One of the sites where the remains of Neolithic settlements were found, the Street House site, is located near the seaside town of Loftus in North Yorkshire. In the 1980s, archaeologists first unearthed an early Neolithic stone tomb here, and then a late Neolithic ritual structure with a palisade.
In addition, traces of a developed settlement of the Iron Age with traces of saltworks, which continued to work in Roman times, and an Anglo-Saxon cemetery of the middle of the 7th century were found in Street House. In 2011, a geophysical survey revealed another complex of monuments at Street House, dating back to the Neolithic era and consisting of several stratigraphic horizons.
The site is being researched by an independent archaeologist from Redcar, Stephen J. Sherlock, in collaboration with a number of experts from British universities and volunteers involved in the excavation. Based on the stratigraphy of the complex, the researcher identified three main phases in its history.
The upper horizon belongs to the Late Neolithic and, according to the fragments of hazelnut shells contained in it, dates from the beginning of the XXVI – the middle of the XXV century BC. It represents the remains of a structure: arched depressions from wooden posts.
Below this layer, Sherlock discovered a horizon containing a large amount of charcoal and turned out to be much older – it appeared approximately between 3800 and 3700 BC, in the early Neolithic. The lowest layer, belonging to the first stage of the complex’s existence, remains unexplored so far.
In the early Neolithic horizon, Sherlock found the remains of a room measuring 2 × 2.8 meters with three areas containing traces of intense combustion. In addition to charcoal, within this building, numerous tools from local flint and flakes left after their manufacture was discovered, as well as burnt wedge-shaped stones (apparently, they formed the edges of the hearths) and fragments of ceramics.
These are shards of biconical vessels belonging to the earliest British pottery tradition, Grimston-Lyleshill. Some of them turned out to be covered with a white coating, resembling a salt crust. X-ray fluorescence analysis showed the presence of chlorine in the composition of the plaque, and the researcher suggested that the found room was a salt mine.
Sherlock points out that there are no bone remains among the finds, therefore, the structure at Street House could not have been a cremation site. There is also no waste of ceramic production that would suggest that the premises served as a pottery workshop.
A round pit with traces of clay coating, found in the same horizon, also speaks in favor of the hypothesis of a salt mine. It could be used to store brine. Concentrated brine prehistoric salt miners were obtained by natural evaporation on the shore, where seawater was taken (the nearest convenient point for this, according to Sherlock, is about four kilometers).
The brine was then brought to Street House and drained into a tank. Here they filled ceramic vessels and evaporated salt on hearths lined with stones. To separate the formed salt crust, the vessel was broken.
Pottery also allows us to judge the origin of the Neolithic tradition of salt making at Street House, which is 3.5 thousand years older than the local settlement of the Iron Age, in which salt was also mined, and more than two thousand years older than the saltworks in Somerset.
Scientists associate the appearance of biconical ceramics of the Grimston-Lyleshill style with settlers who arrived in the British Isles from the territory of modern Northern France. It is believed that the migrations of small groups of these people marked the beginning of the Neolithization of Britain.
It is possible that the building with hearths was not the only salt mining workshop in the Early Neolithic Street House: geophysical surveys revealed signs of a similar object 10 meters to the north, in an area not yet covered by excavations.
In what volumes the oldest British saltworks produced their product and what were the ways of its distribution, further research will show. Sherlock believes that similar salt mines existed on the east coast of England in the early Neolithic, but traces of many of them may have been destroyed by rising sea levels and coastal erosion.
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• Sherlock, S. (2021, March 31). Early Neolithic salt production at Street HOUSE, LOFTUS, north-east England: Antiquity.
• Welford, J. (2021, March 30). Historical find older than stonehenge unearthed in EAST CLEVELAND.