A Millennium of Saltmaking: Prehistoric and Romano-British Salt Production in the Fenland, ed. TOM LANE & ELAINE L MORRIS
Lincolnshire Archaeological and Heritage Reports 4. 2001. 509 pp, 106 figs, 16 pls. ISBN 0-948639-32-6 (£31)

The fenland of south Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk, with its low rainfall and drying winds, was an ideal area for the collection of sea salt by evaporation; an industry that first appears in the last years of the Bronze Age and continued into the Middle Ages with few changes in technology.

This volume describes the results of substantial excavations at Cowbit and Morton in Lincolnshire, and Middleton in Norfolk (undertaken as part of the Fenland Management Programme), together with smaller-scale work at Langtoft, Market Deeping, Deeping St James, and the Bourne-Morton Canal in Lincolnshire, Parson Drove in Cambridgeshire, and Nordelph and Downham West in Norfolk. It assesses the data recovered against the wider saltern industry defined by the Fenland Survey of 1982-89 (published in East Anglian Archaeology Reports). This is a number of different projects which were rolled into one monograph when it was realised that the excavations at Cowbit, Morton and Middleton ‘enabled identification of the changes and developments in technology and salt making through almost a millennium’. It required a re-assessment of other sites identified in the 1980s Fenland Survey, or those that had produced briquetage and that could be related to well-stratified collections from excavation. What began as the publication of three sites, chosen for their period representation, sealed deposits, and potential organic preservation, became a ‘dated type-series of briquetage [that] will prove valuable to scholars in the Fenland and beyond’. While this is an honest admission on Tom Lane’s behalf, this volume is more than that. It defines the salt-making industry of the Fens from the late Iron Age to the late Roman period and beyond.

The late Bronze Age and early Iron Age salt industry was located on the western fen edge and coastal clays in Lincolnshire on the edge of the salt marsh; early sites are hard to find because they are well sealed below alluvium. The majority of saltern sites defined by the Fenland Survey were late Iron Age or ‘Roman’, and extended out onto sediments in what had been salt lagoon in the earlier period. They are known from field-walking, for this is now an area of intensive cultivation; most are seriously damaged by cultivation and by drainage. It was to sample these sites before it was too late that the Fenland Management Project excavated Cowbit, Moreton South Drove and Middleton. The result was to identify specific collections of briquetage in contexts which were meaningful and which could be closely dated. Most particularly, hearths / ovens were recovered, as well as settlement and evaporation tanks and the process of salt recovery was identified. The result was to take this evidence and reassess of the original Fenland Survey, refining its results and adding typological phasing. If there is a flaw, it is that the Fenland Survey did not cover the whole of the Lincolnshire fens.

This volume is important because it identifies for the first time the development of salt making technology through time, and via environmental analyses, is able to place salt making within the wider fenland economy. Although we still cannot be sure whether peat or crop-processing waste and brushwood was used to speed evaporation, the process itself can now be reconstructed with confidence. Sets of briquetage types change through time, and in which Elaine Morris identifies chronological and technological developments in a very conservative industry. Even in a project of this scale there remain problems to be resolved by future research. The most pressing is the need to understand the wider context of water management. Salt water was brought to these sites in channels, it was stored in salt pans for the first stage of evaporation, and was possibly filtered (at least it was in the medieval period but evidence is lacking for the Iron Age and Roman period). Lacking too are the associated settlements (that at Langtoft was badly plough-damaged). Was this where the evaporation vessels were made? Missing, too, are the Bronze Age and Saxon salterns, which are neither apparent on the surface nor recorded by field survey. If the typology of salt production is established, a research agenda to address these lacunae has been provided.

What began as the publication of three type-sites and a review of earlier research is much more than the sum of its parts. This thought-provoking publication does justice to an essential industry in England’s largest and least known wetland. Hopefully, it will not be the final word.

Glyn Coppack

Review Submitted: March 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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