The Exmoor Iron Project was set up to investigate the production of iron in the Exmoor region, with particular emphasis on the archaeological evidence for the prehistoric to the medieval period. The Exmoor Iron Project was carried out by the University of Exeter, in partnership with Exmoor National Park Authority and The National Trust, with funding from English Heritage. The project entailed comprehensive research and excavations between 2002 and 2006.
Exmoor’s early iron production sites are extremely well preserved due to the remoteness of the region. This has limited the threat of more recent industrial extraction; though there were concentrated efforts of 19th century mining in the Brendon Hills (see the West Somerset Mineral Railway Project), and some efforts to rework some of the earlier extraction sites at Roman Lode, Hangley Cleave, Kitnor Heath and Colton Pits. The Exmoor Iron project has investigated a number of sites throughout the Exmoor region to draw together the evidence for early iron production.
Predictably, there is no evidence for iron production in the Exmoor region until the Iron Age, however, excavations at the Roman Lode openwork revealed a hearth dating to the Early Bronze Age, which indicates that people were interacting with the iron ore deposits at this time. Certainly, the outcrop of quartz and intensely red-stained rocks, combined with vegetation changes, would have attracted the attention of local people.
Minimal evidence of the exploitation of iron ore deposits exists for the Exmoor region during the Iron Age, with radiocarbon dates spanning the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD for the sites at Sherracombe Ford and Sindercombe Farm, and iron smelting slag finds from the Iron Age settlement at Timbersombe.
The increase in iron use and range of its applications meant that the Roman period brought the first clear signs of iron production in the Exmoor region. During the 2nd century AD, there were smelting sites at Clatworthy Reservoir, Sherracombe Ford and Brayford, which probably produced an overall total of several thousand tonnes of refined iron. During the 3rd century AD, the character of iron production changed, with smaller scale operations becoming typical, such as that at Blacklake Wood. This was probably due to the more unsettled political conditions of the time, meaning that food production had become a priority.
From the beginning of the 5th century AD, the period known as the ‘Dark Ages’, there is virtually no evidence for iron production on Exmoor. From the 11th century AD, there is mainly documentary evidence.
Excavations at the medieval iron smelting sites in the Barle Valley (New Invention, Shircombe Slade East, Shircombe Slade West) and at Oldrey found them all to be small, presenting a very different picture to those of Roman date. The implication is that iron was being produced only for local needs, and, given the brief occupation at these sites, perhaps only at times when metal could not be obtained easily from elsewhere.
Faye Glover, summarised from 'A Field Guide to Exmoor's Early Iron Industry'
Bray, L. (2010). A Field Guide to Exmoor’s Early Iron Industry. Exmoor National Park Authority.