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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Iron-Working Site at Withyham.
by J H Money.
(Tonbridge Wells & District Arch. Group.)

In 1965, during various weekends between March and November and for three weeks at the end of August and beginning of September, work continued on the early iron-working site in Minepit Wood (also known as Orznash), Withyham, Sussex.

The excavations were under the auspices of the Sussex Archaeological Society. The excavators are grateful for the continued help and technical advice given by Dr R F Tylecote, Lecturer in Metallurgy at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Mr Henry Cleere, Assistant Secretary of the Iron and Steel Institute. Thanks are also given for the donations from several sources which made it possible to finance the year's work. The main expenses were: casual labour for removing the topsoil, new items of equipment, and the mechanical filling-in of the whole of the original site.

The excavation and recording of the furnace, including a section through its stone backing and successive layers of clay lining, were successfully completed. It was then filled in.

The furnace, which was egg-shaped and about three feet in diameter at its widest point, was placed at the end of a shallow pit about twelve feet long and between three and four feet wide. The sides of the pit were supported with masonry, against which the clay lining of the furnace was built round a horseshoe shaped framework of stakes probably woven with wattle like a basket. Three tuyeres (clay pipes into which the bellows were inserted) were found still in position in the wall of the furnace, at right angles to each other and inclined downwards. There had probably been a fourth tuyere set in the front wall of which only traces of the lower portions have survived. In front of the furnace there was a depression into which the slag was tapped during the smelting. This singularly well-preserved structure, which is unique amongst early iron-working furnaces so far discovered in this country, is also the first early furnace to be excavated in the Wealden area. Its date, however, is still unknown. Whilst the circumstantial evidence, in the shape of late Iron Age and Romano-British pottery, suggests that it is of this period, the nearest parallels, structurally speaking, in other parts of the country, are of Saxo-Norman to Mediaeval date. The problem of dating may be solved as soon as charcoal recovered from the interior of the furnace can be subjected to a Carbon 14 test.

To the west of the furnace was found a small occupation area with a roughly circular arrangement of post-holes of various sizes, suggesting a small timber hut or shelter, within which were a small intensely burnt hearth, scattered charcoal, remains of many tuyeres, pottery, fragments of querns (corn grinding stones) and sharpening stones.

Further to the west there were scattered but sparser remnants of occupation on disturbed ground, including a filled-in minepit, pottery, fragments of tuyeres, and a small platform of rammed slag, but no evidence of any other structures.

In the middle of the summer traces of more stone work were found in an area of uncleared woodland about 200 yards to the east of the original site. The wood was promptly cleared and the area explored. Digging uncovered the stone footings of a rectangular structure measuring 21 by 34 feet. Within the rectangle was more masonry, surviving in some places up to three of four courses, which surrounded another furnace. This second furnace, Dr Tylecote considers, was used for smithing, the surrounding stone wall acting as a protection for the bellowers. Also within the enclosure were a heap of charcoal, dumps of roasted ore and slabs of shelly limestone; the limestone may have been used as a flux in the smelting furnace. In spite of diligent search no pottery whatever was found. It is as yet uncertain whether the walls of the rectangular structure were originally of stone which has been robbed or of wood set on a stone base to save it from rotting. It is not yet known whether it was roofed and, if so, how the roof was supported.

During 1966, which will be the final season, work will be devoted to completing the excavation and elucidation of the rectangular structure and the furnace; and to a systematic search for occupation material in the surrounding area. Some work will also be done on the traces of what appears to be a minor Roman road passing near the site and linking the Crowborough and Tunbridge Wells area.

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