Thursday, January 28, 2016

Salt Production and Beaker Pottery (Doce et al, 2015)

I'll start today with a chapter entitled "Bell Beaker Pottery as a Symbolic Marker of Property Rights: The Case of the Salt Production Centre of Molino Sanchon II, Zamora, Spain" by Doce, Abarquero, Delibes de Castro, Palomino and del Val Recio.

It is a continuation of the reading from "The Bell Beaker Transition in Europe" by Prieto-Martinez and Salanova.  As usual, I'll give you a brief description then streak across the soccer field of ideas.

In ancient times people procured salt in a variety of ways, but the most accessible way since the Early Neolithic appears to have been the process of briquetage, which reduces brine down through boiling.

Molino Sanchon II is a salt production site where salt was produced through boiling salt marsh water.  Many types of coarse ceramic sherds are present.  What's puzzling though, is that there is a substantial amount of broken Bell Beaker funeral pottery, the largest concentration of this pottery at one site anywhere in Iberia.  This is a site that was flooded most of the year, so no one was buried here.  Unlike Fuente Camacho* (more below), we can positively exclude habitation as well, so that presents us with a basic problem.

Analysis of the funerary sherds do not show that the pottery was used for salt production, so the volume of Beaker pottery (2% of the total sherds, but still a large amount) is somewhat out of place and its purpose at this site doesn't really make a lot of sense.  Nevertheless, someone put it there on a regular basis over a period of time.

It's not a case where extremely clumsy people are eating out of funerary ware and breaking pots all over a salt reduction site.  The authors make a case that the people making the salt were making votive offerings and smashing pottery (something Beakers did) and this also had the effect of establishing their ancestral claim to this turf.  Sounds high-brow but is very inline with what is likely to be the thought process of a person at that time.  All very, very plausible.

Contemporary salt glazed stoneware (Commons)

To preface this next segment I'll say that I use every paper on the Beakerblog as a means to open discussion on a problem rather than critique the paper.  I think this is usually in line with the character of most academics, to present a problem and propose likely solutions as a means of soliciting alternatives or confirmation.

I'll submit a far-fetched, second possibility that may account for both the volume of funerary ware and its presence at a site where salt was being generated.  That is the possibility that Beaker funerary ware was being salt glazed (with sodium chloride) at this site in addition to general salt production and, as is often the case with kilning, many pieces do not survive firing or do not come out well.

Since sodium silicate is water soluble it is unlikely that any hypothetical glazed sherd would keep from breaking down over such a long time, especially for being such a thin layer.  Also depending on how a pottery is kilned, there may be an absence of glazing on the inside of pottery.  It's more likely that the interior of liquid bearing pottery would have been burnished with beeswax. 

The volume of salt needed to salt glaze pottery is fairly substantial, so it could be funerary pottery was made in several distinct phases.  The other thing is that the level of silica and iron in Beaker pottery would be very conducive for producing a dull semi-gloss red, even though using sodium for glazing is first used in Europe during Medieval Times.  Glazing with lead salt goes back to at least Roman Times, so its not impossible that certain types of glazing were known and fell in and out of fashion at different times.  Here's some modern salt glazing on youtube [here]

There is also this paper concerning a similar phenomenon in Andalusia at the similarly aged Fuente Camacho, lots of salt and lots of varied, special purpose pottery in addition to the more abundant coarse pottery.  Whereas Molino Sanchon is definitely not a habitation, Fuente Camacho probably was not as well, since it's in an unusual place for a settlement and the fact it is situated near a salt water spring.  Like in Molino Sanchon II, the problem in Andalusia is the pottery is extremely varied table ware and funerary ware, and interestingly notable, includes funerary ware from the Agaric Culture.

If Fuente Camacho is not settlement, then it can only be a strict salt production site.  If that's the case, then why the volume of highly varied ware?  If the potteries were votive in nature, should be expect such a variety?

Let me close in saying that my purpose here is not to offer serious criticism or well thought out alternative hypotheses but to engage in fully self-serving gratification by streaking naked through the university campus.  It is gonzo archaeology.  Someone writes a serious paper and then I take it and go to wacko world.

See also:

"EL APROVECHAMIENTO PREHISTÓRICO DE SAL EN LA ALTA ANDALUCÍA. EL CASO DE FUENTE CAMACHO (LOJA, GRANADA)"  (The prehistoric use of salt in upper Andalusia. The case of Fuente Camacho (Loja, Granada), Jonathan Teran Manrique and Antonio Morgado, (2011)


  1. "it is situated near a salt water spring."

    - I had no idea that such things existed.

    "It is gonzo archaeology."

    - You are too modest. Your hypothesis is very credible. It is consistent with the available evidence, it doesn't call for any extraordinary assumptions, it is not limited to a one-off outlier site, and it makes sense in the context of Beaker Society. Also, while you may be an amateur, you are basing your analysis on the same sources that professionals in the field do, and probably have expertise in this narrow sub-sub-field of archaeology than most academics in the field. If you do fieldwork, it behooves you to spread your research across every stratigraphic layer in your dig rather than focusing on one layer and its parallels at lots of other sites that aren't yours. If you are a professor, you have to devote a significant share of your professional time to teaching courses with much more of a survey orientation to non-specialized undergraduates, and even if you do work that implicates the Beaker culture, it is as likely as not that this is a secondary specialization in addition to other primary research interests that limit the amount of time available to be immersed in Beaker culture materials in particular. There are probably aspects of fieldwork where you are less expert than the professionals, but there is no percentage in belittling the quality and value of your own work when there are plenty of people out there willing to do that for free for you if it really deserves that treatment.

    1. I will have to double check this. I know the Southern site is in Grenada, but I don't know the proximity to the coast or a coastal tributary. Let me check and comment again...

      Thanks for the encouragement and comments. I make no pretenses about my lack of training or experience in this matter since it's a hobby and interest. Because it is blog, I try not to spend an excessive amount of time researching a particular subject as then it would start to become a burden. So in that sense, if I devoted my career to it, then my tact and writing style would be different, and I'd devote a lot of time on a subject and then doing peer reviews and spelling checks!

    2. Regarding the second site to the south...I'm still not quite sure if the salt is already within the ground aquifer coming from the Gilbratar mountains or if it is naturally occurring salt deposits in the mountain streams that is being picked up by the flowing water. The latter seems more likely. Either way, the area is home to a modern salt industry.
      Also, I'll correct myself, the water is not being directly taken from springs, but rather it appears spring feed streams. Don't quote me just yet.

    3. In the Kentucky/southern Illinois context, salt water springs would be known as salt licks. And a quick google turns up Saline Rivers in Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas (are these two the same river?) and Michigan before I stopped looking. Presumably, these are hydrologies related to now-subterranean old seabeds.

    4. Thanks for the info about saltlicks. I don't know if that's applicable in this case, but the Granadan location is close to the coast. In that case it could have also been salt deposits picked up by spring feed streams.

      I know I've seen salt springs before. I though I remember the spring at Bath Spa being slightly saline

  2. Here's a bit of description of a salt lick, in case it's interesting to you, including a photo of an "ancient bison trail" formed by the herds traveling to lick the salt of the spring:
    This is in Kentucky, and it mentions it's on the Licking River. I never made the connection, but I once paddled a different Licking River in Ohio. It gives you a sense both of how common natural saltwater upwellings are in at least some locations far from the ocean. But more importantly, how important they were in a pre-industrial phase of settlement. That so many American rivers would take on names related to their salt content suggests how central such things would have been to the economy. The Saline River of Illinois was one of the first federal semi-industrial facilities in the country, owned by the federal government even before statehood, with a large scale drying pan operation (worked by slaves, despite the fact that Illinois was free soil.)

  3. First, thank you for your blog. I have been following for about a year.
    Second, I agree with the above comments. I was also thinking that it would make sense to use the heat generated in a kiln to also evaporate water, and wondered if it was possible that this was actually a kiln site with some salt evaporation combined?
    German Celt

    1. That kind of makes sense, if you're going to do one, do both and get the most out of it. I imagine briquetage requires a lot of fuel and the process is very labor intensive. Also, thanks, I appreciate it.

    2. It truly is seeing that very likely seeing that definitely not of which that is a legitimate focus together with different key exploration likes and dislikes of which control the volume of time period there for possibly be wrapped up with Beaker way of life products for example.

  4. Salt in welsh is halen which is celtic in origin but also believed to be linked to greek and its word for salt halas and hala. Large amounts are found in Anglesey where the last of the druids were killed by the Romans.