Neolithic people were manufacturing salt in Britain almost 6,000 years ago, before the building of Stonehenge and more than two millennia earlier than was first thought, a new archaeological discovery suggests.
Excavations at a site at Street House farm in North Yorkshire have revealed evidence of the earliest salt production site ever found in the UK and one of the first of its kind in western Europe, dating to around 3,800BC.
The finds, uncovered at a coastal hilltop site near Loftus, include a trench containing three hearths, broken shards of neolithic pottery, some still containing salt deposits, shaped stone artefacts and a storage pit – all key evidence of salt processing.
According to Steve Sherlock, the archaeologist who led the dig, the finds are “spectacular and of national significance”. Numerous bronze age salt-working sites are known in Britain, the earliest of which dates to around 1400BC. But while neolithic salterns have been found in continental Europe, notably in Poland and the Balkans, no comparable sites were known in the UK.
Sherlock is a professional archaeologist who mostly works with commercial partners including Highways England, and led excavations on the A14 development in Cambridgeshire. His annual excavations at Street House with a team of volunteers are part of his own self-funded research, however.
“It took me a while to get the confidence to stand up and say: ‘This could change how we view the neolithic,’” he said. But he sought input from other academic experts in ancient salt production “and they are all of the view that this is evidence for neolithic salt-working, and is tremendously significant”.
His research is published in the June issue of the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity.
The people who were using the Street House site at the time were like “pioneers”, said Sherlock, who had cleared oak and elm forests to form their settlements. Pottery found at the site was of a type introduced by people who migrated from northern France about 4,000BC, and “the salt-working technology probably arrived with these migrating people”, said Sherlock.
Earlier research on pottery found at Street House showed lipid deposits, indicating the presence of dairy products and suggesting a society that was moving away from hunter-gathering to a more settled farming lifestyle reliant on growing crops and keeping animals.
Salt would have been a rare and highly valuable commodity at the time, as it allowed foodstuffs to be preserved for use throughout winter. “The people who can control and manage salt and distribute it, are usually the wealthier elements of society,” he said. Other structures dating from the period excavated at Street House – including a cairn, mortuary structure and house – indicate a community that was thriving.
Sherlock believes the early neolithic people would have collected seawater at beaches nearby, where it would be allowed to evaporate to a concentrated brine. This was then transported to the processing site and stored in a brine pit, before the brine was heated in pots, which were then broken to retrieve the salt cakes. It is likely these were then traded for other goods.
The fact that no comparable early neolithic sites had been found may simply be due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion in the intervening six millennia, said Sherlock.
The discovery, he said, “changes our view of [early neolithic people]’s ability to farm and prepare and cook food. We need to think about the dynamics of how this industrial process worked, and how it is marketed and distributed. It changes how these people are seen – as farmers – to people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing, and distributing this product over an area.”