ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 33, April 1998


Tin mine closure marks the end of more than an era

The closure in March of South Crofty tin mine in Cornwall, the last operating tin mine in Europe, was widely reported last month as marking 'the end of an era' of 'a few hundred years' of tin mining in Britain.

Tin extraction and processing, however, has a far longer history in Britain than that. The closure of the mine, near Camborne, and of Wheal Jane tin mill near Truro, represents the end of an activity that has probably taken place in Cornwall for over 3,500 years - since tin-bronze came into wide circulation in Britain by 1,500BC at the latest. The very earliest bronze did not contain tin but was a copper-arsenic alloy.

Until the Middle Ages, British tin ore was dug up from river-beds - rather than mined - and archaeological evidence for early extraction is scarce. However, six pieces of tin slag (the waste material from smelting) were found underneath the Bronze Age Caerloggas Barrow near St Austell in Cornwall. Nearby at Redmoor, between St Austell and Bodmin, an Iron Age brooch was found during the 19th century in stratified river- bed tin deposits, strongly suggesting that the same deposits had been dug in the Iron Age.

Bronze Age tin mines have been claimed to survive in Iberia, where there is less river-bed tin ore than in Britain. The world's earliest known tin mine is said to be at Kestel in Turkey, dating to 2,600BC, with a contemporary smelting plant at nearby Göl Tepe. The oldest tin smelting site in Britain is at Lanlivery near Lostwithiel in Cornwall, and dates from the 12th or 13th centuries, while several medieval mines are known, for example Ding Dong mine on the Land's End peninsula.

Before South Crofty and Wheal Jane were closed down, their industrial processes were recorded by the English Royal Commission. The investigators found the process of extracting tin from its ore was essentially similar to the process used in earliest times - 'sieving', although here undertaken on a giant scale, and with a number of refinements. In essence, the ore is crushed to dust, suspended in water, and passed down a series of slightly-inclined tables. The heavy tin particles are deposited on the tables while the rest of the suspension passes on.

According to Keith Faulkner of the Commission, the mill was a '3-D nightmare . . . a huge place resembling a small power station.' The quantity of tin produced, however, was surprisingly small compared to the size of the mill. The mine and mill were forced to close as a result of the arrival on world markets of cheaper tin from the Far East.

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London's wall 'older than was thought'

The possibility that the Roman walls of London are half a century or more older than was previously thought has been raised by an analysis of brickwork from a section of the wall recently uncovered in the City of London.

The walls have been assumed in the past to date from about AD200, but the dating evidence has never been strong. Scholars have placed much importance on the presence of a coin of the AD180s found in the walls of the Roman fort in London, where they had been thickened to match the width of the walls of the city.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS), however, have now placed bricks from the wall within a typological sequence of Roman bricks from numerous other sites around London, and have concluded that they date from the 1st to the mid-2nd century. One brick was of a type that is known to have been produced no later than the 120s. The bricks were used periodically throughout the wall to level out the courses of rough stonework.

According to David Sankey of MoLAS, the new analysis suggests either that the wall is older than was previously thought, or that it was constructed of largely recycled material. 'If the bricks were recycled, where did they get the half-million estimated to have been required?', he asked.

The section of wall examined was in Wormwood Street - the continuation of London Wall near Liverpool Street Station and the Guildhall - during recording work in advance of house-building by Goldcrest Homes. According to Mr Sankey, there is no reason to suppose the bricks here were any older than those used elsewhere. 'People have tended just to overlook the bricks,' he said.

Part of the wall will be left visible in the new development. Other standing sections of the wall can be seen at the site of the bombed church of St Alphage in the Barbican Centre, and by Tower Hill underground station.

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Saxon and Viking trade in North Wales

New light on the little-understood early medieval period in North Wales has been shed by further work at the Viking-age and pre-Viking settlement of Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey.

Previous work uncovered traces of a timber hall, now known to date from the 7th - 8th century, underlying a group of 10th century buildings - the first undisputed Viking-age settlement in Wales (see BA, December 1995 and February 1997). The excavations, directed by Mark Redknap of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, suggested that the settlement, a working farm, was also producing metal, bone and leather goods, some presumably intended for trade with ships crossing the Irish Sea between Dublin, the Isle of Man, Chester and the Wirral.

The latest work has established that the settlement was founded as early as the 6th century, perhaps earlier. A 7th century bird-headed Saxon brooch with parallels in Yorkshire provides material evidence of contacts between the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Northumbria in this period, long known from historical sources. In the early part of the century the Northumbrian king Edwin was overlord of the Welsh, but a year after his death in 633 the king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon, killed Edwin's successor, and himself took control of Northumbria for a year.

A wattle and daub roundhouse has been found on the site, contemporary with the 7th - 8th century timber hall. It may have been associated with nearby industrial activity, and it prefigures typical Welsh buildings of the 12th century, described by the writer Gerald of Wales as 'dwellings of woven rods sufficient for a year's occupation, assembled with a minimum of labour and a modicum of expense.' The discovery appears to show that in the 7th - 8th centuries, wattle roundhouses and substantial timber halls co-existed.

Two 9th century Northumbrian pennies have also been found on the site - a third is known from Segontium near Caernarfon - indicating that trading contacts with north-eastern England continued.

Whether the 10th century settlement was occupied by Vikings or by native Welsh who had adopted Viking-influenced culture remains unclear. Viking-style goods of the period, however, are 'remarkably well preserved and surprising in quantity,' according to Dr Redknap. They include fragments of silver armbands of a type made in Ireland, dress fasteners similar to those found in Dublin and York, leatherworking tools with parallels in Dublin and Whithorn, and 'Chester ware' pottery (actually made in Staffordshire) which is known to have been exported to Dublin. The discovery of 10th century bullion in the form of hacksilver - cut pieces of silver jewellery and ingot - seems to show that Anglesey operated within the bullion economy of the Hiberno-Norse world.

Evidence of Viking settlement or Viking cultural spread on Anglesey casts an interesting sidelight on Welsh politics in the period, when Hywel Dda, ruler of Gwynedd in the early 10th century, sought co-operation with the Saxons of Wessex for security against what he perceived as the Viking threat.

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In brief

Bronze Age farm

Unusually well preserved remains of a Bronze Age field system have been found under peat near the Callanish stone circle on Lewis. They consist of roughly parallel stone field walls, about 25m apart, which are thought to run for hundreds of metres. The walls may originally have been built from a mixture of stone and turf, and still stand up to half a metre high in places. The fields have only been briefly examined, but have been provisionally dated by analogy with similar but less well-preserved remains nearby. According to Geraint Coles of Edinburgh University, an excavation next year will look for evidence of farmed soils and settlement. At present no Bronze Age settlement sites are known on Lewis.

Site ploughed up

The visible remains of a scheduled Roman settlement lying under pasture in Norfolk have been flattened and ploughed up by a farmer, Sir Rupert Mann, who had forgotten they were on his land. Sir Rupert pleaded guilty at Thetford Magistrate's Court to what he described as a 'tragic oversight', but had not been sentenced by the time British Archaeology went to press. The settlement, at Scole, survived as earthworks in more than four acres of pasture. It lay on the road between Colchester and Caistor St Edmund, now the A1066, and is thought to date from the late 1st to the 4th century. At the hearing, the site was described as the largest and most complete example of its type in Norfolk.

see Comment

Peat pressure

Ministers are to face renewed pressure to conserve peat from their own principal wildlife adviser in England. Baroness Young of Old Scone, who becomes chairman of English Nature in May, announced last month that she will press for a 'green levy' on peat, minerals and water taken from Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The sums raised, she said, would be used to buy out extraction permissions that remain valid on SSSI peat bogs. According to the Peatlands Consortium, a 40p levy on a bag of peat would raise £12 million a year.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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