In Britain, lead salt pans were used by the Romans at Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich and excavations at Middlewich and Nantwich have revealed extensive salt-making settlements.
Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt. It is said to be from this that we get the word soldier – ‘sal dare’, meaning to give salt. From the same source we get the word salary, ‘salarium’.
Salt was a scarce and expensive commodity and its value was legendary. To sit above or below the salt identified precedence in the seating arrangements at a feast, according to one’s rank. Not to be worth one’s salt was a great insult. The Bible compliments some men as being ‘the salt of the earth’.
At the time of the Roman Conquest, British salt making had been long established at numerous coastal sites and at the inland brine springs of Cheshire and Worcestershire. Salt was a vital commodity to the Roman army and this demand will have been met by establishing military salt works. At the inland sites the nearly saturated natural brine would require much less fuel and time to make salt than from the evaporation of weakly saline sea water.
The Roman army’s advance to the North reached Cheshire by around 60AD and established military bases at Chester and Middlewich. Chester was a supply port and a convenient military base from which to gain control of North Wales with its lead and silver mines. At Middlewich a fort was built on a defensive site above the River Dane and this became a staging post on the main military road to the North. At Middlewich the Romans established their saltworks on land by the River Croco between the military fort and the site of the existing Celtic salt making settlement.
At both Middlewich and Nantwich digs have produced a wealth of Roman period finds such as leatherwork, pottery and timber-lined, clay-packed pits. But both sites appear to lack the mass of briquetage which has been a feature of other salt making sites and indicative of Iron Age/ Bronze Age occupation. Middlewich has produced some briquetage indicative of early salt making but the Nantwich 2002 dig appears to have been a Roman lead pan site without earlier or later occupation. But no evidence remained of supporting substructures for the pans.