Past Talks

The production, distribution and use of salt in prehistoric Britain

Date: 19th April 2021
Speaker: Dr Janice Kinory

The Production, Distribution and Use of Salt in Pre-Historic Britain
Dr Janice Kinory 20 April 2021

Today, salt is an industrial product, but prior to the 19th century it was rare and valuable.  No salt was produced in the immediate area and none exists in the archaeological record, as moisture in the air has destroyed it. Therefore, the existence of a salt-related pottery called briquetage is used to track salt’s production and distribution, together with a small number of pre-historic salt production sites.

Briquetage at British sites dates from the Middle Bronze Age to the early Roman period  (c.1400 BC to the second century AD).  The majority of finds, however, date to the British Iron Age (c.800 BC to AD 43). 

Probably the earliest method of salt production was solar evaporation of seawater.  However, given the British climate, this could be better achieved by heating the brine, evidenced by brine heating pans found in Lincolnshire. 

Inland salt production was based around sites such as that at Droitwich, and in Cheshire.  Here the brine would have been heated in tall briquetage vessels set over hearths, rather than in pans.  Although crude-looking, the briquetage container was highly adapted for heating and drying.

Briquetage find patterns indicate the distribution of salt, although not all regions used briquetage for transportation.  Saltways for land transport and rivers were utilised.  The expanding road network during the Roman period aided distribution.

Salt was considered to be an essential commodity in pre-history and continues to have numerous uses.  Drying or curing of meat; the initial treatment of hides; cheese-making and the pickling of vegetables and nuts are all important activities which require a supply of salt.

Salt production sites, whether it be coastal salt pans or inland salt springs, were involved in ancient rituals with religious beliefs and superstitions being associated with salt.

Salt was used as a payment for dowries and this is still practised in some cultures.  About 10% of a Roman soldier’s pay was made in salt.

In the 1990s, Janice identified a briquetage find on a Romano-British site in Steeple Aston, which is an unusual find so far from Droitwich.

Janice’s book Salt Production, Distribution and Use in the British Iron Age was published in 2012. 

She will visit a meeting later in the year to show artifacts associated with her talk.