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The Excavation of a Bloomery Smelting Furnace

A Romano-British ironworking site was discovered by members of the WIRG Field Group in December 2002. The site, between Heathfield and Mayfield, in East Sussex, England, is one of 112 known from the period in the Sussex and Kent Weald.

A combined excavation by the Wealden Iron Research Group and the Mid-Sussex Field Archaeology Team has revealed the survival of significant parts of two bloomery furnaces in light woodland. Iron slag is scattered over more than 2000m2 on the side of a small valley formed by a minor tributary of the River Rother.

The first furnace, which was roughly circular in shape, has an internal diameter of about 80cm and survives to a height of about 1 metre. Evidence of the slagged lining of the inner sides suggests that the height was originally somewhat greater, with a chimney extending above the dome. Its size makes this furnace larger than others found in the Weald, and similar in size to furnaces of contemporary, or slightly earlier date, found at Laxton, Northamptonshire, and at Clérimois, Yonne, France. There is evidence of at least three instances of rebuilding and realignment. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found within the furnace has given a date of AD80 - AD250 at 95% probability. A stone revetment has been revealed on both sides of, and downhill from, the furnace. Also, a small forging hearth has been uncovered in front of the furnace, based on sandstone slabs inclined into a shallow basin.

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View of first furnace showing sandstone revetment and forging hearth
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Detail showing surviving lining of first furnace
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Members of WIRG and MSFAT
during the excavation

The second furnace was smaller and built over a shallow depression. Remains of the shaft above the hearth, which has a diameter of about 30cm, have survived, apparently in situ. Unlike the first furnace, this one did not have a domed chamber. As with the first furnace, though, there is evidence of rebuilding and realignment. No date has been ascribed to this feature so far.

About 70m uphill of the furnace an ore-roasting hearth has been excavated; measuring 4m by 3m, it is considerably larger than others found on contemporary sites. Several charred logs were found in the bottom of the hearth, which probably survive from when the hearth was last used. Radiocarbon analysis of this charcoal has yielded a date of 130AD - 260AD at 95% probability, making the ore roasting hearth approximately contemporary with the smelting furnace.

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Double tuyere found near first furnace
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The ore-roasting pit,
showing charred timbers in the bottom
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WIRG and MSFAT Members excavating the pit

Close to the second furnace a deep, curved trench has been discovered, excavated into the sandstone bedrock in antiquity, and refilled with furnace debris. So far measuring in excess of 10m in length, its original purpose is unclear, and its extent is still being investigated.

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Second furnace, showing shaft and probable access to hearth
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Ancient trench of unknown purpose, showing deposited furnace debris filling

The broad date range of the site has been confirmed by finds of East Sussex ware, a native pottery type associated with the 1st - 3rd centuries AD.

For further information about the Mid-Sussex Field Archaeology Team click HERE


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