NéoSal. The Añana salt works (Álava, Basque country): salt extraction as early as the Neolithic (2021-2024)

15 juin 2021 par Maxime DANGER

Coordinators: Olivier Weller (Trajectoires) and Alberto Plata Montero (Fundación Valle Salado)

Partner institutions : UMR 8215 – Trajectoires (CNRS and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) ; Fundación Valle Salado (Añana) ; UMR 5608 – TRACES (CNRS and Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès) ; UMR 7264 – CEPAM (CNRS and Université de Nice) ; UMR 6249 – LCE (CNRS and Université de Franche-Comté) ; UMR 7209 – AASPE (CNRS and Museum d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris) ; INRAP ; Universidad del País Vasco-Vitoria ; Université populaire du Pays basque ; Qark Arqueología SL ; Universidad de Valladolid ; Casa de Velázquez (Madrid)

The origins of salt production

Funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Excavation Commission), this new project (2021-2024) in the Basque Country (Añana salt pans, Álava) is an extension of our research in Eastern Europe, since once again, it is the oldest evidence of salt production in Europe, dating back to the Neolithic period (second quarter of the fifth millennium BC). These oldest European, and even worldwide, salt farms are central to debates linked to human sedentarism, food practices (human and animal nutrition, food preservation, cheese making, etc.), the development of complex economies (exchange networks, control of resources and production, etc.) and the appearance of unequal societies.

Carte de situation des salines d’Añana (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Álava, Pays Basque)
 (© R. Brigand et O. Weller)

Very old rehabilitated salt pans

Salt was extracted by solar evaporation over an area of more than 10 ha at the Añana saltworks. This medieval and then modern saltworks was totally abandoned in the 1960s, and salt production resumed there in 2010 (today on 2,000 platforms on crystallisation piles made of wood, clay and stone). In the same way as the renaissance of the Guérande salt marshes, this site has become a must-see place for living heritage, the cultural landscape and gastronomy (70,000 visitors/year). Today, it achieves an average production of 220 tonnes/year (harvest from May to October). The site was honoured in 2015 for a European award (European Heritage awards), and is in the process of applying for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Vue générale sur les salines (© CNRS / O. Weller)

In 2013-2014, during the restoration of old abandoned historical evaporation areas, several stratigraphic levels containing hundreds of pottery shards and combustion levels were identified on the upstream part of the Añana salt pans. These Neolithic farms date to at least 4700 BC, and could well play a major role in the colonisation and sedentarism processes of the north of the Iberian Peninsula. They could have attracted, or even hosted the settlement of the first populations of farmer-pastoralists from the south of France. Salt resources are still ignored in regional and national models of colonisation and sedentarism, and this four-year project intends to underline the importance of certain salt resources, such as the salt springs of Añana, and their capacity to attract and structure the first farmer-herder communities of Western Europe. These natural brine springs are highly concentrated in salt, with 250 to 280 g/l of NaCl, i.e., almost 10 times more salt than in sea water, and very abundant, with a high flow of 2 l/s, which makes them virtually inexhaustible.

Une exploitation renaissante très dynamique (© CNRS / O. Weller)

Exceptional discoveries to be studied

The region around Añana is still poorly documented in pre- and protohistory. The aim of our research at the Añana saltworks is to identify all the technical processes used, to characterise management methods and interactions with the natural environment and to assess the socio-economic impact of these first Mediterranean salt productions at the scale of the site (still in operation) but also, more widely, at a regional scale and beyond. In addition to the identification and detailed excavation of the abundant archaeological deposits (thick accumulations of combustion soils very rich in pottery material observed in sections over an area of several hundreds of metres, downstream from the salt springs), it will be necessary to carry out a series of on- and off-site analyses (water, soil, charcoal, pollen, etc.). Surveys and coring will thus enhance the contextual data and the inventories and databases of previously identified sites in the region (rock shelters, caves, megaliths, etc.) and will enable us to evaluate the structuring influence of this first prehistoric Mediterranean saltworks and its role with regard to neolithization processes in the Pyrenean mountains (pioneering colonisation of the Ebro valley from the middle of the sixth millennium onwards), as well as the remarkable development of megalithism, pastoralism and exchange networks from the fifth millennium BC onwards.

Découvertes archéologiques sous les bassins d’évaporation (© CNRS / O. Weller)