February 27, 2024

An iron age workshop, where blacksmiths were forging metal about 2,700 years ago, has been discovered in Oxfordshire, complete with everything from bellows protectors to the tiny bits of metal that flew off as the red hot iron was hammered into shape.

Radiocarbon tests date it between 770BC and 515BC, during the earliest days of ironworking in Britain. From about 800BC, the art of forging iron became widespread in the British Isles for tools and weapons and the iron age takes its name from the mastery of this metal.

Archaeologists told the Guardian they had been “completely blown away” by the early dates and the evidence.

This was no ordinary smithy, but a highly skilled producer of large and high-end iron artefacts, including everything from swords to chariot wheels.

A computer generated image of what the iron age workshop might have looked like. Photograph: DigVentures

The discoveries include the footprint of the blacksmith building and internal structures, with evidence of a specialised hearth and iron bar, from which artefacts were made. There is also an intact tuyere, which would have channelled air into the hearth, while also acting as a buffer to protect the bellows from the extreme heat of the flames.

The excavation was conducted by DigVentures, an archaeology social enterprise, while investigating the area downslope from the iron age hillfort at Wittenham Clumps, a South Oxfordshire landmark. In 2021, the team found an extended iron age settlement, with the remains of roundhouses dating from 400-100BC.

The excavation site near Wittenham Clumps. The archaeological team described the workshop as ‘a very serious blacksmithing operation’. Photograph: DigVentures

Everything would have remained buried beneath the sprawling green landscape if not for a decision by Earth Trust, the environmental charity that takes care of the site, to redevelop its visitor centre. An archaeological excavation was part of the planning application.

Nat Jackson, the site director of DigVentures, said of the latest finds: “The range of evidence is remarkable. We’ve got almost every component of the blacksmith’s workshop … The only thing we haven’t found is the tools. It’s an incredible thrill to uncover something like this. It basically allows us to peer back in time and see what could have been one of Britain’s earliest master blacksmiths at work.”

Maiya Pina-Dacier, an archaeologist with DigVentures, said: “This is a rare glimpse of a master craftsperson at work from such a pivotal point in time – the arrival of ironworking in Britain.”

The almost intact tuyere, the size of which suggests large objects were forged at the site. Photograph: DigVentures

She added that the discovery of a tuyere was among exciting remains: “We get examples from later periods, including the Saxon, Viking and medieval periods – and everyone gets excited when they find those. But finding one that dates back to the first few centuries of the iron age – and that’s complete – that’s what’s exceedingly rare, not only in Britain, but in Europe.”

She added: “The size of the tuyere tells you about the size of the hearth. In the iron age, most artefacts such as everyday tools were actually quite small. To produce small items, you only need a small hearth because they take up a lot of energy and are hard to control. You’d need a big hearth if you’re producing something large or long, and those things in the iron age are swords and cartwheels. Those kinds of artefacts could only be produced by the crème de la crème of smithies. This workshop was a very serious blacksmithing operation, something that’s quite out of the ordinary and special.”

The finds were examined by Gerry McDonnell, an archaeometallurgical specialist, who described them as “remarkable”.

Founded in 2012, DigVentures is a team of archaeologists who aim to increase public participation in archaeology.

Some of the artefacts will be exhibited to the public in February in a free popup exhibition, with talks and workshops, at the Earth Trust visitor centre in Abingdon.

Anna Wilson of Earth Trust said that such discoveries were “literally forging new history before our very eyes and revealing more of the ancient mysteries behind this very special place”.

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