Common Salt, extraction in Anglo-Saxon England
The extraction of common salt (Sodium Chloride) in England was limited to two methods, coastal and inland extraction. Both were employed prior, during and after the Anglo-Saxon Period, often utilising the same site or locale.
During the early stages of Anglo-Saxon settlement only coastal extraction appears to have been practised. At this time the sea level was rising, as the Roman coastal defences eroded. As a result extraction sites moved back as the coastline altered, then in time returned to sites nearer our present coastline, as defences were gradually rebuilt. As this happened huge amounts of peat were extracted, creating the area known now as the Norfolk Broads, and this peat was utilised to provide the fuel necessary for evaporation of Common salt out of solution. Coastal saline solution is far less pure and less concentrated than that found inland. Several sand leachings concentrated the solution. This was then boiled, evaporating the water and precipitating the Sodium Chloride leaving unwanted or dangerous metallic salts,which are more soluble, in solution.
Sites on coastal areas are found near woodland sites, and the Doomsday record indicates 64 salt producing villages in Norfolk. In Lincolnshire and Sussex there are 34 villages with multiple salt pans. Giving an estimated total of 360 salinae in the eastern coastal counties.
Around 577 AD, we find evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement in the Severn Valley, centred around present day Droitwich an area of natural brine springs, which had been utilised since the early Iron Age. There is evidence of Anglo-Saxon inland extraction in the late 6th Century at Upwich.
There was a huge advantage to inland salt production, especially in the Droitwich area as the brine from the springs there is unusually pure in Sodium Chloride, possibly even unique in it presents naturally as a saturated solution. Each extraction pit in the area has its own characteristics, even those separated by only 6 feet. The brine flow is regulated by artesian pressure and one particularly prolific pit at Upwich was calculated in one study as producing 589 gallons/hour.
Much of the information on salt extraction comes from linguistic and written sources. Later in the period, salt charters granting salt extraction rights, generally owned by local inhabitants can be found and records detailing salt tolls payable.
Some sources indicate wic(h) as a signifier of a salt making site. However, Linguists generally define wic, to mean settlement or place, for instance, Droitwich was originally known as Saltwic (recorded 884AD). Wic is also associated with other trades, indicating for instance a specialised woodland area producing prepared sticks (hlot) for charcoal making, as in hlot wic.
In recent times, excavations have produced Archaeological indications of Anglo Saxon salt works, such as remnants of post holes, pot shards and charcoal, in a chemically altered soil indicating salinity.
From these small clues it has been deduced that typical Anglo Saxon salt production utilised two or three shallow rectangular lead pans over each stone furnace. In conjunction with dating from charcoal samples an accurate picture is starting to be drawn up, which supports the later written evidence, available in greater abundance.
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Copyright Melanie Wilson 1999