has been much excitement in the world of archaeology and history this month
the discovery of a salt ship. No, that's not a vessel for transporting the
condiment via sea - although, as one observer pointed out, it did look like a
A salt ship is, or was, a large storage vessel for brine which was used in
Nantwich's salt producing industry in medieval times. Take an oak tree, cut off
the roots and branches, leaving a tree trunk measuring 7.5 metres, hollow it out, and you have a salt
ship. Salt ship, gravy boat? Just names . . .!
One way of producing salt, as you may know, is by
boiling off the water content of brine.
Of course, you couldn't boil brine in an oak trunk, or you wouldn't have
the ship for long. Boiling was done in lead pans - an example of which
can be seen in Nantwich Museum.
By the way,
salt is found in various parts of the world, including a mine at Winsford, Cheshire,
and the "wich" part of town names such as Northwich and Middlewich means
salt producing town (roughly).
It was while I was taking photographs for the museum's website, in my
(then) role as webmaster and for the archives so that future Dabbers can know
what happened, that I was privileged to see the moment of rediscovered
A team of archaeologists from Earthworks
Archaeological Services from Ewloe, Flintshire, had moved on to a site that was then a car park,
but on which houses used to stand, to see what lay under
At this point I should pay tribute to the three Schofield Brothers who
own the adjacent cafe, bar, eaterie
and rooms (far right), at that time called Curshaw's as well as the dig site. Curshaw's was once known
as The Cheshire Cat - a restaurant at one time owned by the brothers' uncle,
William (Bill) Schofield. It later became a
nightclub called Korky's. The brothers halted their
plans to build houses on the site, being
community-spirited enough to let the archaeologists take a look first.
(Or is that a requirement for building on land that may hold historic
And so it was that on a Monday
morning early in January that a group of archaeologists, museum
officials and the general public stood in the pouring rain and watched as a large crane lifted the
2.3-tonne salt ship
from an eight-foot deep hole in the ground and placed it gently on the
back of a low loader on which a bed of sand had been laid.
From his vantage point in the
cab of the crane, the driver had watched as the hook was attached with
slings to the salt ship. "It weighs
over a tonne," he said, watching the scale in his cab as the crane
the strain. Then, "Two tonnes . . . Two point three
The salt ship is lifted clear of the Wood
Street mud where it had lain since its days in the town's salt producing
It was swung on to a low
loader which took it away to be preserved in York.
called out as the lift proceeded.
The timber structure was
then swung effortlessly (above) on to the waiting low loader to be taken
away, sealed in black plastic.
The team from
Earthworks Archaeology - who did both the
initial dig and the latest excavation - secured the site as the official
"treasure hunter" assigned to the project passed his metal
detector over the spot where the ship had lain, searching for any artefacts
which had been buried underneath.
now the officials and the crowd had left. Then the voice of a cynic was
heard: "All that to get one buried tree
out of the ground?!"
Perhaps he was not being serious, but it will probably
be a while before anything as large as the ship will be taken from where
it was left by the Dabbers of old.
Important as they are in piecing together Nantwich's history, somehow bits of broken pottery and old coins don't
produce the same awe.
upshot of the excavation was that, thanks to
a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, arranged by the then Cheshire
County Council, the salt ship was preserved in a two-year process
to go on display at Nantwich Museum. The original plan - well, hope -
was that all the salt ship could be displayed in the museum
but there is not enough room. The
ship had to be cut into
three pieces so that it could fit into the preservation vats where it
lay soaking in a special liquid for two years, but the museum
authorities were assured that it could be reassembled at a later date if
display space could be found.
This was the second ship to be
excavated in Nantwich and two more lie underground awaiting future
rescue. Only two salt ships have been unearthed in the U.K.
is again known as The Cheshire Cat - as is told in
this Letter from Nantwich.