Archaeologists Discover a ‘High-End’ Blacksmith’s Iron Age Workshop

Found in Oxfordshire, the “smithy” was active at the beginning of a transformative era in Britain

A visual reconstruction of the workshop, which was active near the start of Britain's Iron Age DigVentures

Researchers have unearthed a “master blacksmith’s” Iron Age workshop—complete with forging equipment and metal fragments—in the English countryside. Dating back some 2,700 years, the discovery sheds new light on the beginning of the region’s rich metalworking history.

The blacksmith’s workshop—or “smithy”—was found during a dig in Oxfordshire by the excavation company DigVentures. Radiocarbon dating suggests it was likely active between 770 and 515 B.C.E., near the beginning of Britain’s Iron Age. Researchers tell the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge they are “completely blown away” by the site’s age and contents.

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

Beginning in about 800 B.C.E. with the arrival of ironworking methods from southern Europe, Britain’s Iron Age lasted until roughly 43 C.E. “Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze, and ironworking revolutionized many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture,” according to the University of Warwick.

The smithy was excavated near Oxfordshire's Wittenham Clumps. DigVentures

The dig site is located near Wittenham Clumps, a landmark in the region owned by the charity Earth Trust. BBC News’ Stephen Stafford reports that researchers excavated the smithy between 2018 and 2020.

“Evidence suggests that this wasn’t just your average village blacksmith,” writes DigVentures in a Facebook post. “It’s an early example of an extremely skilled ‘master blacksmith’ producing large or high-end items.”

In addition to the building's remains, the team found evidence of forging equipment, such as hearth lining and an iron bar, and tiny bits of metal that would have flown off as the blacksmith hammered the iron, according to a statement from Earth Trust. They also unearthed an intact tuyere, a tube used to blow air into the hearth.

Finding a complete tuyere from this era is “exceedingly rare, not only in Britain, but in Europe,” Pina-Dacier tells the Guardian. She says that the size of this particular tuyere—the researchers can be seen holding it with two hands—provides clues about the size of the hearth, which was likely larger than average.

A large tuyere was found at the dig site, suggesting the workshop produced large iron products. DigVentures

“You’d need a big hearth if you’re producing something large or long, and those things in the Iron Age are swords and cart wheels,” she adds. “Those kinds of artifacts could only be produced by the crème de la crème of smithies. This workshop was a very serious blacksmithing operation.”

The smithy isn’t the first significant find unearthed at Wittenham Clumps. Other Iron Age buildings—a cluster of roundhouses and a pantry—have been found at the site, as well as a Roman villa containing the remains of a tiny pet dog.

Artifacts from the blacksmith’s workshop will go on display at Earth Trust’s visitor center in the nearby town of Abingdon during its Archaeology Festival of Discovery in February.

Excavation leader Nat Jackson, a site director at DigVentures, thinks the wide range of artifacts unearthed at the site is “remarkable.”

“We’ve got almost every component of the blacksmith’s workshop,” he says in Earth Trust’s statement. “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.”

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