The 'Briquetage De la Seille' (Lorraine, France): Proto-Industrial Salt Production in the European Iron Age

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Salt is a mineral resource essential for the existence of human societies, and crucially, one that must be procured in part through artificial means. It may be obtained directly by mining deposits accessible from the surface, a technique which was used during the Bronze and Iron Ages at the sites of Hallstatt and Hallein in Austria, or extracted from sea water sources through simple evaporation. This technique, still used today to produce salt along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, was also used in these same areas in the ancient and medieval periods where salt marshes were managed in such a way to produce sea salt of varying qualities. Thirdly, evaporation can be forced in various types of furnaces, the brine being obtained from saline springs or by washing sediments or plants containing salt. This technique (poeles a sel or boiling brine) was used extensively in the medieval and modern periods, and also during the protohistoric periods in Europe and is recognisable through its waste products of broken pottery containers, or briquetage.

Of these three techniques it was the practice of boiling brine that was used most extensively during European prehistory, or in any case the one which has left the most discernible archaeological evidence in the form of briquetage. The oldest archaeological evidence for boiling salt dates to the Neolithic era, roughly the fourth millennium BC, from the Lengyel Culture in Poland. Archaeological evidence of salt extraction dating to the first half of the sixth millennium BC has, however, recently been discovered in the French Alps in Moriez (Morin 2003). The techniques associated with briquetage spread primarily during the Bronze Age throughout Europe. However, it is during the Iron Age that the extraction of salt through boiling brine and its further refinement into ingots, all within specifically designed furnaces, reached its maximum extent (Figure 1). A series of inland salt springs in Lorraine (France) and Baden-Wurtemberg and Hesse (Germany) are the principal known centres for salt production in Europe and were intensively exploited. In contrast to the above relatively large centres exploiting salt springs and mines, along the coasts of the Atlantic and the North Sea the number of small workshops exploiting salt marshes and salt derived from sea water increased in particular during the late La Tene period (Saile 2000; Fries-Knoblach 2001).


The Briquetage de la Seille: location and brief history of research

Remains of one of the most significant Iron Age salt extraction and production centres in Europe are located at Briquetage de la Seille, in Lorraine, eastern France ('Haute Seille' on Figure 1). A series of workshops, located around numerous brine springs, spreads across an area roughly 10km by 3km. Located within the valley of the Seille River (Moselle), the volume of waste produced from salt production activities, which is evidenced by fragments of salt moulds and the remains of earthen furnaces, totals roughly 4 million cubic metres. The broken and discarded furnaces and moulds form gigantic mounds that range from 1 to 12 metres in height and 50 to 500 metres in diameter. So great were, and indeed are, these mounds, that the Roman and then medieval urban centres of Marsal, Moyenvic and Vic-sur-Seille were built upon them.

At the end of the seventeenth century, the Kingdom of France fortified Marsal and Moyenvic to protect its still profitable salt production industry. There, the royal engineer Royer Arteze de la Sauvagere observed and noted the presence of significant accumulations of burnt earth (Figure 2) that he named 'briquetage' (de la Sauvagere 1740). During the nineteenth century the function of these over-sized mounds remained enigmatic, with their creation sometimes attributed to the Franks (Dupre 1829), to the Celts of the time of the Roman conquest (Beaulieu 1840-1843), or even to the Late Palaeolithic period, or Age du Renne (Ancelon 1870). …