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Discovery Could Rewrite British Prehistory

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

Excavation in Yorkshire reveals a 5,750 year old salty Yorkshire tale - with big implications.

Archaeologists working on the Yorkshire coast have unearthed the oldest salt-making complex ever found in western Europe, in a discovery that is set to revolutionise our understanding of prehistoric Britain’s economy.

Dating back almost 6,000 years, the site - complete with salt-making kilns, or hearths - predates the oldest previously known British salt ‘factory’ by almost 2,400 years.

The discovery has huge implications for our understanding of how Neolithic Britain’s economy functioned - and suggests that it was far bigger and more efficient than previously thought. The economy was based substantially on cattle but, without salt, efficiently operating such an economy would have been impossible.

The discovery on Yorkshire's Boulby Cliffs therefore suggests that Britain’s earliest agriculturalists were able to produce much more food than was previously considered to be the case - and that would have enabled more rapid population expansion, thus accelerating social and political change.

There are no sources of rock salt in the area (and, in any case, rock-salt extraction would not have required kilns), so the salt was almost certainly being made from sea water. “Extracting salt from seawater is a time-consuming and complex operation, requiring considerable skill. Any ancient coastal culture that was able to master that technology would have been able to expand their economy substantially,” said one of Britain’s top authorities on sea-salt production, David Lea-Wilson.

Salt would have enabled Neolithic people to very substantially increase their beef and dairy production - by making it possible for them to properly preserve meat. Without salt, they would have been unable to efficiently manage their cattle assets - the basis of much of their economy.

The newly discovered fact that salt was available would therefore have revolutionised early agriculture by enabling the meat from slaughtered young male cattle to be preserved and used as a continuous year-round food source, and also freeing up pasture for milk-producing female cattle, boosting dairy yields as a result. It would also have reduced the quantities of winter fodder required. A year-round supply of salt-preserved meat would also have removed the necessity to slaughter many milk-producing female cattle - and that would have further increased milk supplies and any yoghurt, cheese and butter production.


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