The Archaeology of Irish Salt – Review of progress

The Archaeology of Salt Production project began in January 2014 and has now completed its two-year mission to identify the remains of all historic-era salt works around our coast. In the course of the national survey we identified over 400 sites dotted around every coastal county and surveyed around 70% of these. In many cases, and in parallel with the industry elsewhere, the sites of salt production were re-purposed (particularly in urban environments), destroyed, rendered unrecognisable or were difficult to locate accurately. Those that had been abandoned were sometimes robbed of building materials, or completely overgrown as nature had reclaimed them. In a few cases however substantial built structures survived, allowing us at least a partial glimpse into the architecture and components of a post-medieval salt working site. These sites demonstrated the varied nature of the industry in Ireland, ranging from (literally) a cottage industry through to purpose-built complexes with pan house, stores and accommodation.

Streamstown, Co. Sligo

Streamstown, Co. Sligo

The excavation aspect of the project saw two sites revealed at Ballycastle in Co. Antrim. At the 17th-century salt works part of a complex was uncovered showing the use of local stone in a poorly constructed store at the top of the beach. Impoverished in artefactual remains, it revealed nevertheless that coal was the main fuel, and plentiful clinker indicated the remains of burning. The larger part of the complex lies under the 19th-century coalfield to the south and will be the focus of any future investigation. At the second, 18th-century site, the last known evaporation pans in Ireland were uncovered, recorded and reburied with added protection from the sea. This striking site demonstrated the increased sophistication in the industry by the time it was abandoned in the early 19th century.


The principle researchers at the Ballycastle pan.

The end of 2015 represents the end of active fieldwork; however post-excavation and post-survey work continues in tandem with some archival work. In addition, the all-important dissemination of results will continue through conferences, tours and publications. Although the blog site will now become quieter, we will be updating it with any key events or outputs from the project as they arise. Thanks for all the interest shown by readers to date – and Happy Christmas!


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