Anglo-Saxon Iron Smelting by Karen Anderson
Iron smelting was carried out in Romsey on an industrial scale. It left behind a distinctive dark black soil containing charcoal and slag. Pieces of slag have turned up on many excavations. With no stone to hand on the gravel river terrace, blocks of slag were put to use as packing in postholes. The smelting took place in an area south of the Abbey, on a corner of the terrace bordered by the Test floodplain on the west and the eastwards bend in the river where it meets the Tadburn on the south. The excavation at Narrow Lane uncovered evidence for slag pit furnaces, a relatively inefficient technology that produces massive blocks of slag. This material has not been dated. A deep deposit of smelting debris at the Creatures Pet Shop site (4 Market Place) provided a 7th/8th century date. Further smelting material in a channel cutting the mid-Saxon layer was associated with Saxo-Norman pottery - smelting continued into the Late Saxon period. A recent re-assessment of archived material from the Midland Bank site (10 Market Place) has found that smelting was carried out just 20m from the current abbey building, within the abbey precinct. None of these excavations have been published. Most of the discussions on Saxon iron smelting in the published literature fail to mention Romsey.
Creatures Pet Shop Excavation A1986.12
A small, but important, excavation was carried out in 1986 at the rear of the then Creatures Pet Shop. This business traded at the south side of the Market Place, in the third building west of the Town Hall, 4 Market Place. The excavation produced a considerable quantity of iron smelting debris. A feature identified as a water channel cut through a deep deposit of ash, charcoal and iron slag. Charcoal samples from this deposit have been radiocarbon dated to the 7th/8th century. The water channel lies on the line of the west branch of the Fishlake which now runs through a culvert along Church Street and then turns west into Abbey Water. Lenses of smelting debris within the fill of the channel demonstrate that smelting was taking place after the channel was diverted, continuing into the Late Saxon period. Pottery within the channel fill is Saxo-Norman.
The notes, site drawings and finds from the Creatures Pet Shop excavation are stored at Chilcomb House in Winchester. This material has been examined and photographed as part of the Anglo-Saxon project. More information on the site is available by clicking the links below:
Richard Palmer and Jessie Russell excavating behind Creatures Pet Shop in 1986. They are at the west end of the L-shaped trench shown in the plan. This small excavation produced 150kg (330 lbs) of iron smelting slag.
Photo by Frank Green
A short, anonymous note entitled ‘New light shed on Romsey’s early history’ was bound along with the context sheets for the Creatures Pet Shop excavation stored at Chilcomb House. After 36 years the deposits have finally been radiocarbon dated.
Drawing of the south section and a detail of the channel fill. Red arrows point to Contexts containing smelting debris. Yellow arrows point out the edge of the water channel.
A fragment of charcoal was removed from a block of slag found in Context 4, the deep deposit of smelting debris cut by the channel. The sample was radiocarbon dated to 667-774 (95.4% probability).
A fragment of a cattle tibia was radiocarbon dated by the CARD Fund. It was found at the bottom of the water channel, in Context 55. The dating of the bone to the 7th century indicates that it was residual, eroded from deposits cut by the channel. Although it doesn’t date the Fishlake, it provides evidence for cattle rearing as another aspect of the economy of the mid-Saxon settlement at Romsey.
Bone photo by Frank Green.
Whetstone from Context 55 at the bottom of the water channel. The date of the whetstone and the identification of the stone used for its manufacture have not yet been determined.
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Narrow Lane excavation A1981.125
Eight small trenches were excavated in Narrow Lane prior to the redevelopment of the site. Iron smelting in the area left behind a deep, black, charcoal-rich soil which obscured the stratigraphy. A platform of fired clay might have been associated with smelting activities. A clay-lined shaft was probably part of a slag block furnace in which the slag was collected in a pit beneath the furnace, rather than being tapped during the smelt. A total of 350kg of slag was found during the excavation.
A very large slag block from Narrow Lane in the finds store at Chilcomb House. The block would have formed in a pit underneath a smelting furnace. The slag block method of smelting was practiced in the Germanic areas of northern Europe, so it would have been known to the Anglo-Saxon migrants. This technology was also used at the extensively excavated Saxon settlement of Mucking in Essex.
Narrow Lane, looking north. The roof of the Abbey is visible beyond the buildings. The houses on the right of the photo were built on the site of the excavation.
8th/9th century copper alloy stylus found within a deposit of iron smelting slag during the excavation at Narrow Lane. A stylus was an implement used for writing on a wax tablet, with a pointed tip used to incise letters into the wax and a flat ‘eraser’ at the other end. The stylus has stylish bands around the shaft. The circular depression near the top would have held a decorative setting. This was not an everyday item; it resembles bronze dress pins of the period. At a time when few people could write, this stylus was designed to impress.
Midland Bank Excavation A1988.9
An excavation was carried out 1988 prior to the building of an extension at the rear of the then Midland Bank at 10, Church Street (Abbotsford House). An approximately 2m x 2m trench, intended to serve as a soakaway, was excavated to the level of the natural ground surface. Deposits of animal bones overlay layers that contained burnt flint and pottery, probably prehistoric. The bones, radiocarbon dated as mid-Saxon, indicated a high-status diet including cattle, sheep/goat and pig, along with deer, domestic fowl and fish. After serving as a dump for kitchen waste, the area was used for iron smelting. The presence of pits, post and stake holes and a clay floor show that the site was in active use. Later the area seems to have been used for stone working with a layer (106) containing smashed stone fragments that was interpreted as possible mason’s debris. This could have been associated with the building of the Norman abbey or possibly with a Saxon stone church.
At the western side of the trench was a deep feature. It appears from the plans to have been dug from the level with the stone debris. The lower half was filled in with smelting waste, context 123. Pieces of tile were found in this context including a Roman box tile from a hypocaust. Roman tile was used in the construction of Saxon smelting furnaces on other sites in Romsey, but these pieces showed no sign of reuse. The deliberate partial infilling of the feature indicates that it was not intended as a ditch. Perhaps it was a pit dug as a source of gravel. The succession of layers in the upper fill contained stone fragments with a concentration of large fragments of building stone overlain by a spread of mortar. Again, this could relate to the building of the Saxon or Norman abbey.
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Detail of the 1867 OS map showing the ornamental gardens to the rear of Abbotsford House, arrowed. The excavation trench was directly behind the building. This 25-inch town map shows the interior plans of public buildings such as the Abbey Church. It also includes the ground plan of the Lady Chapel, identified during an excavation.
Drawing of the south section. The Saxon deposits are annotated. The stone mason’s debris in the upper layers in the feature on the right could be Saxon or post-Conquest in date.
Read more about iron smelting:
Report on iron slag from Romsey by JG McDonnell, Ancient Monuments Research Laboratory, 1988. Click here
Working papers - Information on iron smelting was gathered for circulation to the members of the project.
Searching for iron ore at Foxbury in the New Forest, successfully. Siderite was found in the Wittering Formation deposits.