Technology and Production

Advances in an understanding of early medieval technology and production in the region are limited to two strands in the last decade, relating to iron-working and the drying of corn. Several sites have produced evidence of iron-working, one, at Burns Wood in Lancashire, excavated in the early years of the twenty-first century, but not identified as of early medieval date until a programme of radiocarbon dating had been carried out. There, two possible buildings were associated with metal-working residues, including smithing-hearth bottoms and tap/run slags (OA North 2006), and the site produced four radiocarbon dates, from both oak and alder/hazel, as well as an oat grain and a hazelnut shell, ranging from the later seventh to the beginning of the tenth century (cal AD 680-900 (1215±35 BP; SUERC-33852); cal AD 680-900 (1210±35 BP; SUERC-33856); cal AD 650-780 (1295±35 BP; SUERC-33857); cal AD 660-870 (1270±35 BP; SUERC-33858)). The recovery of handmade pottery, apparently of Bronze Age date, raises the possibility that such vessels may actually belong to an early medieval tradition, as was proven to be the case at Fremington, Cumbria (Oliver et al 1996).

4.14 Plans Burns Wood and Nether Wasdale

At Nether Wasdale, in the western Lake District, a very similar site was excavated, which also produced evidence of iron-working, associated with two or three structures, including what has been identified as the base of a simple pit furnace (T Young pers comm), indicating smelting on the site as well as evidence for secondary smithing (Brown and Evans in prep). The charcoal from the site may have been the product of coppiced woodland. In addition, a large pit some 30m to the east of this site contained a substantial basal fill of charcoal and burnt material, and was interpreted as a kiln, although its precise function remains uncertain. This provided a radiocarbon date of cal AD 385-554 (1599±39 BP; SUERC-56267), suggesting that industrial activity in the area may have started in the late Roman period, continuing beyond the end of Roman governance.

Analysis of the metalwork from Cumwhitton, and comparison with material from other sites in northern Cumbria, has produced evidence of a possible craft workshop in the area (Paterson et al 2014). The very distinctive use of the ring-and-dot motif, combined with boss-capped rivets, on buckle sets from Cumwhitton and other objects from northern Cumbria is so similar that it surely must come from a single operation, presumably in the vicinity.

Ring-and-dot motif buckles from northern Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

In the south of the region, some apparent evidence for iron-smithing came from a pit on the A556, Knutsford to Bowdon Improvement (Wessex Archaeology 2016), although charred plant remains, including possible fragments of naked wheat grain and rye, also came from the feature. It is possible, however, that these were incidental inclusions, entering the pit with the fuel, as large quantities of charcoal were also recovered. An excavation at Gristlehurst Hall at Heywood, Rochdale, revealed a clay-lined pit with a stone foundation, originally capped with flat stones (BAG 2014).  On its western side it opened onto an area defined by boulder alignments, and a soot- and charcoal-filled hollow. The charcoal provided a radiocarbon date of cal AD 987-1045 (934±29 BP). At present, the function of this feature remains uncertain.

11th century kiln at Gristlehurst Hall, Heywood, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Bury Archaeology Group)

Similarly, a small-scale excavation at Farbrow Road, on the outskirts of Carlisle, identified two pits which had the appearance of small kilns (Greenlane Archaeology Ltd 2015). These simple forms would comprise a fire pit with a shallow flue, and an organic superstructure. Large amounts of charcoal were recovered from both, and a date of cal AD 536-654 (1469±36 BP; SUERC-61978) was produced. However, the features were not directly connected with any slag, nor were any quantities of cereal grains recovered, so their function must again remain uncertain.

Evidence for the drying of corn has come from Hilary Breck, in Wallasey in the Wirral, where a large pit produced a rich assemblage of charred plant remains, including large numbers of cereal grains, primarily barley, many retaining their hulls, but also including oats and wheat (OA North 2014). Four cereal grains returned dates in the fourth to sixth centuries AD (cal AD 430-580 (1550±30 BP; Beta-315035); cal AD 420-560 (1570±30 BP; Beta-315036); cal AD 390-540 (1610±30 BP; Beta-315037); and cal AD 430-580 (1550±30 BP; Beta-315038)). The feature has been interpreted as a corn-drier of ‘classic key-hole construction’ (Adams 2012).

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