Neolithic salt production at Street House?

Evidence could suggest that Street House was once home to a fairly large-scale operation for the production of salt.

Potential evidence for a Neolithic salt-production site has been identified at Street House, near Loftus in North Yorkshire. While prehistoric salterns dating to the Bronze Age and Iron Age have been identified in Britain before, this would be the first Early Neolithic example to be found – a significant discovery that would greatly add to our understanding of diet, food production, and animal husbandry during this period.

Neolithic remains – including a cairn and associated mortuary structure, as well as a palisaded monument – were first found at Street House during investigations in the 1980s (see CA 94 and 111). Further excavations led by Steve Sherlock during the 2000s revealed an Iron Age settlement with evidence for salt production that appears to have continued into the Roman period, as well as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery (see CA 281).

BELOW Excavation of the possible Early Neolithic saltern at Street House in 2019.
Excavation of the possible Early Neolithic saltern at Street House in 2019. Photo: Steve Sherlock.

Steve has continued to work on the site over the decades and, recently, further Neolithic features emerged, including a large chamber that was first interpreted as a possible crematorium (see CA 359). Further analysis of the curious feature, however, showed that this was unlikely to have been its function, as no skeletal remains were found despite excellent preservation in this area. It was then hypothesised that it might have been a pottery kiln, as there was extensive evidence of burning and hundreds of ceramic sherds found within it. However, no wasters – such as distorted, shattered, or spalled pots – were identified, which would be expected if it were indeed a kiln. In addition, no Neolithic kilns are known elsewhere in Britain: it is believed that at this time pots were fired in large, open fires.

Having examined all the evidence again, Steve now suggests that this could be the remains of a saltern. The chamber measures approximately 2m by 2.8m, with a further trench extending south, making the entire complex approximately 6.5m in length. There were three areas of burning present, which probably represent the location of hearths, and around these areas were concentrations of fire-reddened, wedge-shaped stones, which Steve believes may have been used to prop up the oven furniture and ceramic vessels containing the brine. Similarly shaped objects, although made of ceramic, have been found at Bronze Age and Iron Age salt-production sites in Britain.

Steve also thinks the narrow trench in the southern end, where post- and stake-holes have been found, may have been a flue or chimney, while a pit in the south-east end of the structure, which is clay-lined, could have acted as a storage container for the brine solution before it was heated over the hearths. The large number of ceramic sherds found in the chamber would then be explained by these vessels having been intentionally broken to obtain the salt cakes that resulted from the heating and evaporation process. Many of these characteristics bear a close resemblance to other salt-production sites in Britain from the Bronze and Iron Ages, and are features in common with known Neolithic salterns from the Continent.

Radiocarbon dating with Bayesian modelling was able to date the feature to between 3800 and 3700 BC. This date, in combination with the presence of carinated bowls, suggests that the technology for salt production could have been brought to Britain by migrants from north-western Europe who are associated with this type of pottery and are believed to have arrived in the British Isles between 4000 and 3800 BC.

Work is continuing on the site, and a further geophysical survey of the surrounding area has identified a second, similarly shaped feature 10m to the north. If this proves to be another saltern, it could – in combination with the large number of other Neolithic features already found on the site – suggest that Street House was once home to a fairly large-scale operation for the production of salt.

The full results of this analysis were recently published in Antiquity and can be read for free here.

TEXT: K Krakowka.