Prehistoric Salt Production in the Old World

Primitive techniques of salt production have received a great deal of study in the Old World, especially in Europe. A phenomenon most commonly remarked upon is the similarity of fired clay artifacts occurring at salines, the debris of the salt industry. This material has been called briquetage, of which there are three basic forms: large boiling pans, molds for drying and transporting the salt, and small cylindrical pedestals. Very similar forms of briquetage have been observed in England, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, Thailand, Japan, and Niger.

The basic salt production technique is described by Jacques Nenquin (1961) First, the pedestals were stuck into a prepared clay floor at regular intervals. Flat shallow evaporating pans or ordinary cooking pots were placed on top of the pedestals and filled with brine. A fire was lit between the pedestals to evaporate the water. The crystallized salt was then scraped into small conical beakers called augets which, in turn, were put on pedestals over a low fire. The salt would dry and subsequently be transported within these augets. At some sites large clay objects, triangular or trapezoidal in shape, have been found. These objects, called firebars, are believed to have served as an additional support between the pedestals and the evaporating pans (Figure 10a). Sometimes the pedestals were not used at all, the fire bars being wedged into the side of a trench (Figure lOb).

FIGURE 10. Prehistoric Salt Production in England.

The size and shape of the pedestals are rather uniform throughout the Old World (Figure 11a-e,g), primarily because of their function. The pedestals had to either sit on the ground or stick in the ground, and they had to support other objects. Therefore, their upper ends are either cupped or have two or three horns, and their lower ends are either flat or pointed. Their sizes are similar because, to dry the salt correctly, the pans and molds had to be a certain height above the fire. If the salt is too close to the fire, the water evaporates too quickly and the salt becomes blistered and loose. An oven temperature between 1250 and 1500 F is ideal for drying salt, and this heat is obtained best when vessels are elevated to a height of between 4 and 7 inches above a low fire (Kleinmann 1975).

Augets are also quite similar in the Old World. An evolution of the auget has been observed at Halle in north Germany, revealing the separation of the salt mold from the pedestal through time (Figure 11f). Augets are not found in great abundance at salt-producing sites, because they were used to transport the salt to its ultimate destination. They often have standard sizes and shapes, because in some regions they were used as units of currency. In fact, the word salary directly evolved from salt (Latin, salus), as Roman soldiers were paid an amount of currency necessary to purchase this mineral.

It can be seen that briquetage shares many parallels throughout its distribution. It is sometimes quite difficult to distinguish between the briquetage of the various countries. The similarities are not thought to have been the result of worldwide contacts. Using primitive technologies, there were just so many ways to get salt out of solution. To obtain a dry solid mass of salt which, in turn, was easily transportable, the producers had to follow certain procedures.

Having discussed the briquetage found in the Old World, we are now in a position to reexamine the Eastern North American data. Although the research is still in its infancy, there is some evidence to support the notion that late prehistoric Indians in portions of the Midwest and Southeast, including Louisiana, evolved techniques of salt production which were in many ways similar to methods developed in the Old World.

New Data on Salt Production in Eastern North America

My investigation of aboriginal salt production in Eastern North America and in the Old World began as a result of archaeological research on Avery Island in southwestern Louisiana (Figure 1). Excavations conducted at Salt Mine Valley, the location of a major prehistoric and historic saline, revealed two principal aboriginal components, one occupation by peoples of the early Plaquemine culture (c. AD 1000-1200), and another more intensive utilization by peoples of the late Mississippian cultural tradition (c. AD 1550-1650). The Mississippian material was observed in a deeply buried midden layer (Figures 12 and 13). The layer itself was only about 6 inches thick, but 45,000 artifacts were found within it (Brown 1 980a).

FIGURE 11. Typical Forms of Briquetage in the Old World:
a-d, England; e, Niger; f, Germany; g, Japan.

A sample of the various pots represented in the Mississippian component at Salt Mine Valley is presented in Figure 14. Although the decorated vessels are extremely important in terms of determining cultural relationships, it should be noted that the bulk of the collection consists of thousands of undecorated, medium-sized, thin-walled bowl fragments (Figure 14i). Curiously absent at Salt Mine Valley are the typical large thick-walled salt pans. The smaller bowls are suggestive of a rather different process of salt production. Fired clay, ashes, and charcoal are abundant at the saline, but other artifacts (besides the ceramic vessels) are scarce. A number of small, poorly-fired clay objects did manage to survive the humid Louisiana environment. The specimen depicted in Figure 15b is a cupped portion of a larger artifact. Three of these objects have turned up in the excavations. The artifact designated "a" (Figure 15) is a complete miniature vessel, the only one of its kind recovered to date from Salt Mine Valley. The problem I faced was how to explain the salt production processes at Avery Island, when the only objects found there had never before been reported in this country as being prehistoric salt-making equipment.

FIGURE 12. Excavations at Salt Mine on Avery Island, Louisiana.

FIGURE 13. The Mississippian Midden Layer at Salt Mine Valley.

Using the reconstructed methods of salt production in the Old World as a guide, I offer an interpretation of late Mississippian salt technology on Avery Island. I believe that the medium-sized bowls (Figure 14i) were manufactured at or in the vicinity of the saline. To produce the salt, these bowls were supported on ceramic objects above a fire which burned at a relatively low heat. Brine was poured into these vessels and was evaporated. The salt crystallized on the interior walls and bases. The moist salt was then scraped off these bowls and packed into miniature pots, such as the one depicted in Figure 15a. In the process of scraping, numerous bowls were broken. The miniature vessels, which served as molds, were elevated on ceramic pedestals, like the one illustrated in Figure 15b. They too were placed at a certain standard height above a very low fire to prevent rapid drying. The salt was then transported within its containers along established trade routes throughout the Mississippi Valley and the Southeast. Evidence for molds is scanty at Salt Mine Valley, because very few were left behind. The evaporating bowls were used and abandoned at the site, and are thus found in the hundreds. The highly porous, under-fired pedestals were, through time, reduced to abundant fired clay fragments and a number of cylindrically-shaped objects, the latter sometimes having cupped extremities.

FIGURE 14. Mississippian Pots From Salt Mine Valley.

FIGURE 15. Briquetage at Salt Mine Valley.

The idea is an attractive one, but it cannot be accepted using the Avery Island data alone. Such an advanced technique certainly could not have existed in isolation on the coast of Louisiana. If the thin evaporating pans, pedestals, and salt molds actually were used in late prehistoric times in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the remains of such an industry should have been manifested in the archaeological record by now. The problem is of course in identifying an association between the form of the materials and their function. The evaporating pans found at Salt Mine Valley are, unfortunately, identical to typical late Mississippian bowls found on village sites. In the search for salt production techniques similar to that proposed for Salt Mine Valley, I therefore had to examine the archaeological literature for associations between pedestal-like objects, miniature vessels, and salines. Southeast Missouri /northeast Arkansas was a logical place to start the research because, as suggested earlier, it was in this area that salt pans, and perhaps salt production, were declining in late Mississippian times. Perhaps it was also the area where a more evolved technique of salt production developed.

I have been able to isolate only one object in the Cairo Lowlands which could be a form of briquetage (Figure 16a). This object, similar to the earliest auget form in north Germany (Figure 11f), was found by G.C. Swallow in 1857. Although evidence for briquetage is slim in the Cairo Lowlands, there is some evidence for its existence in the Malden Plain region, where the use of thick salt pan ware was declining in Mississippian times. A significant portion of the materials recovered at the Lawhorn site in Craighead County, Arkansas, consists of pedestal-like objects bearing conical shapes. John Moselage (1962) offered no functional explanation for these artifacts, but noted they had some utilitarian purpose, as some were found on house floors. Similar pedestal-like objects have turned up in considerable numbers at the Banks Village site in Crittenden County, Arkansas (Figure 16b-d). These objects, either plain or with nodes, were found with adult burials and in ash pits located within house floors. Gregory Perino (1966) thought these artifacts were "medicine cups," but their common occurrence around the edges of fire basins in houses suggests a utilitarian function.

FIGURE 16. Possible Briquetage in Eastern North American
Sites: a, Lilbourn, Missouri; b-e, Banks
Village, Arkansas; f, Williams, Kentucky; g,
Hardin, Kentucky; h, Clover, West Virginia;
i, Waterworks, Ohio; j-k, Cahokia, Illinois.

Also found in the same contexts at Banks Village were large conical clay objects bearing a hole halfway through their middle, quite similar to specimens observed at Lawhorn. Long clay bars, generally cupped on one end and expanded on the other, are also typical of the Banks Village site (Figure 16e). Large kidney-shaped clay forms were commonly found around hearths at the Banks Village site. Perino felt these objects were pottery supports for round-bottomed cooking jars, and he may be correct. But why the sudden desire to get pottery vessels above the fire, and why at a rather consistent height? Salt production might be another alternative, especially since these strange forms started to appear in southeast Missouri /northeast Arkansas just as the typical salt pans were disappearing.

Evidence for briquetage in other portions of the East is scarce, but it does exist. Pedestal-like objects occur in the Lower Cumberland region (Figure 16f), and they also appear at the Kimmswick saline in Jefferson County, Missouri. David I. Bushnell (1907) described a number of pottery objects as "lids" for ceramic vessels but, excepting their rather attenuated stems, these objects are quite similar to pedestals found on European sites. Pedestal-like objects have been found in northeast Kentucky, well within the saline region. A total of 42 pedestal-like objects were recovered at the Hard in site, a late Fort Ancient settlement occupied between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD (Hanson 1966). These objects have been classified as pottery pestles (Figure 16g), but it should be pointed out that pestles made of coarse pottery are a rather poor substitute for the stone pestles which occur so frequently at Hardin and at other Fort Ancient sites.

Additional pedestal-like objects have turned up in the Upper Ohio Valley, the Clover site in Cabell County, West Virginia, having a couple of specimens (Figure 1 6h). The Clover phase is believed to date to early historic times. Other pedestal-like objects have appeared in late contexts at the Buffalo Indian Village site in West Virginia and at the Waterworks site in Ohio (Figure 16i). One of the pedestal-like objects at the Hard in site has a small perforation in it, similar to certain artifacts found in the general vicinity of the Cahokia site in the American Bottoms of Illinois (Figure 16j-k). The latter objects, often referred to as "stumpware" or "Cahokia Crud", date to around AD 850-900 (James B. Griffin-personal communication). These artifacts sometimes have small holes at the base of the cone-shaped openings. Similar holes in European augets are believed to have served in draining excess liquid as the salt was drying.

Tracing salt molds, or augets, is a bit of a problem because, contrary to the prehistoric European economy, there is no evidence that salt ever served as a form of currency in North America. The practice of making standard size vessels for production and trade probably never occurred in the latter area, but the findings at Salt Mine Valley and the presence of pedestal-like objects so widespread in the Mississippian cultural tradition suggest that some miniature vessels were probably used as salt molds. Miniature vessels are quite common on Mississippian sites, but they are usually classified as toys. This identification is reasonable, as the vessels are often found with child burials. But there is some suggestion that very small vessels served a number of other functions. In some cultural traditions whole and broken miniature vessels are frequently recovered in village excavations, thus implying daily use. Often they occur with adult burials. Very small "seed" bowls in adult graves near the Kimmswick saline in Missouri are typical (Adams et al. 1941; Bushnell 1907).

Southeast Missouri is also rich in miniature bowls. Of some interest is the abundance of such vessels at sites on the Malden Plain in the late Mississippi period. At the same time thick salt pans were disappearing, very small bowls were being made in considerable frequency. At a number of sites they were associated with house floors. At Lawhorn, they even were found within the fire basins, in the same contexts as pedestal-like objects. Miniature bowls were also typical at the Banks Village site in Arkansas. Twenty very small bowls were found at this site, either plain or noded, like the so-called "medicine cups".

It cannot, at this point, be proven that the various miniature bowls are indeed augets. The fact that they have been found in a number of cases in direct association with pedestal-like objects does, I feel, strengthen the case. Ideally, it would be nice to find augets, pedestal-like objects, and evaporating bowls altogether at a saline. But it must be stressed that, with the exception of Salt Mine Valley on Avery Island, a direct association between salines and briquetage has not been established as yet. The correlations and interpretations presented above are therefore highly speculative. I do feel, however, that enough formal analogies exist to permit the hypothesis that typical utilitarian bowls were used, along with pedestals and miniature bowls, in salt production in certain portions of Eastern North America. The Louisiana finds have thus given rise to a rather different and exciting perspective of prehistoric salt industries in this country.