This August sees the first of a series of community digs as part of the Saltscape project. Saltscape is a three year HLF funded partnership project, coordinated and managed by Groundwork, designed to help protect, enhance, restore and celebrate the unique salt landscape of the Weaver Valley in mid-Cheshire. The project area stretches from the Weaver estuary at Frodsham in the north, along the Weaver valley through Northwich and Winsford, to Middlewich in the south.
Salt was first discovered in Cheshire in the Iron Age through natural, or wild, brine springs. The Romans exploited these brine springs on a large scale. Industrial settlements were established at Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich to extract the brine and turn it into salt. During the medieval period Nantwich was the chief salt making town in Cheshire. However, the rock salt layers that fed the brine springs were not discovered until 1690. This, combined with the introduction of the iron salt pan, and coal brought in on the River Weaver, helped Northwich become the main production centre. The use of salt in the chemical industry further boosted demand. Winsford emerged as another centre of the salt industry in the late nineteenth century, when artificial brine pumping replaced mining and natural wells. This pumping led to extensive subsidence along the valley. Buildings in Northwich often suddenly fell into craters formed by the collapse of underground mines. Where this happened in the river valley new meres or flashes were created, as at Ashton’s and Neumann’s flashes. New types of production in the 20th century led to another shift in production focus to Runcorn, leaving behind an industrial landscape gradually reverting to nature.
The archaeology element of the Saltscape project runs from summer 2016 to autumn 2017, culminating in a one day conference. In preparation for the first dig we have run six training workshops, based at the Lion Salt Works (one of the project partners), and five evening lectures on Cheshire’s industrial archaeology. 16 volunteers then braved the English summer weather to explore part of Northwich’s industrial salt making past. This first dig was designed to explore, through a series of test pits, the archaeological potential of the Adelaide Salt Works off Ollershaw Lane. Established as a salt mine in 1850 it had its own canal access off the Trent and Mersey to deliver coal for the salt pans and take away the salt. Later a railway link was added. In 1928 the mine collapsed, creating one the flashes familiar to this part of the Weaver valley. Five test pits were dug to assess the survival of the industrial archaeology, on the site one of the salt pans and part of the railway network. Brick demolition rubble testified to the presence of the salt pans, whilst part of a railway track bed was located. Surprisingly, given the extensive industrial activity on the site, we located pre-industrial plough soils and a field drain in two test pits, along with some 17th century pottery and a collection of clay pipes.
Our team has had its first industrial archaeology experience: from sun burn to soaking wet in just five days! It’s all part of the field experience for those old and new to British archaeology. Our volunteers will now help process these initial results and we shall be back to undertake more research on this saltscape.