NOT ironstone mining, steel-making, ship-building or chemical creation; the oldest known industry on Teesside is now salt-making.

A spectacular discovery from around 3,800BC of the oldest salt-making site in western Europe has been reported this week in a prestigious academic journal by Dr Steve Sherlock.

The Northern Echo: Salt-making at Loftus. Pictures by Steve Sherlock

It could change the way history looks at the way hunter-gatherers gave up their nomadic way of life about 6,000 years ago and settled down to become farmers; it could even change the way Teesside is perceived – previously its only known contribution to culinary history was the parmo, but now the very first Stone Age fine diners, the first gastronomes, could have been tucking into salt-flavoured beef dishes on the clifftops of east Cleveland.

Archaeologists have been working at Street House farm near Loftus for 40 years, unearthing a series of amazing finds. In 2016, Memories told how Teesside’s oldest house, from about 3,600BC had been found there, as the first farmers settled there.

The Northern Echo: A piece of Anglo Saxon jewellery belonging to a Saxon princess which was recovered at the princess's grave in a farmer's field in Street House, Loftus, East Cleveland. The jewellery will be kept and displayed at the Kirkleatham Museum in the

The latest discovery tells of their motivations for settling there because by making salt, they could suddenly begin planning for the future. No longer the hand-to-mouth existence of hunter-gathering, roaming around the countryside collecting whatever they could find; now they could preserve meat, which meant they needed to manage a herd.

Managing a herd meant slaughtering the male calves and preserving their meat, and it led to the beginnings of dairy.

Salt-making itself was an involved process, taking about seven hours from start to finish, and requiring specialist equipment.

The Northern Echo: Street House farm, Loftus. Picture courtesy of Dr Steve Sherlock

Dr Sherlock told Memories how he believed seawater was collected on the beach in the Skinningrove area. It would then be boiled on the foreshore into a briny broth which would then be loaded into the panniers of beasts of burdens and carried nearly two miles to the Street House site which was 170 metres up the cliffs.

He has found a storage pit where the broth was kept beside three hearths. When the salt was required, the fires would be lit, and ceramic bowls about 30cms in diameter would be suspended above the flames. When they were hot, the salty liquor would be poured in. It would evaporate, leaving salt crystals.

“They would break the vessels – which is why we found 750 ceramic shards on site – and scrape the salt out and shape it into cakes.”

The Northern Echo: Excavations at the saltern - the salt-making site - at Street House, near Loftus in east Cleveland. Pictures courtesy of Steve Sherlock

Salt was highly-prized, and its makers could have traded it and are likely to have become wealthy on the back of it.

This technique is known in northern France and Dr Sherlock believes that the first migrants up the east coast brought it with them.

“This must have been happening elsewhere in the UK at this time, but we have the first evidence of it here,” he said.

The Northern Echo: Colin Gregory, of The Northern Echo Camera Club, picked a fine day to walk the cliffs from Saltburn to Skinningrove

Before the Loftus discovery, the oldest known salt-making site was in Somerset from 1,400BC.

Why haven’t earlier sites survived in the UK? Dr Sherlock believes that many of them would have been on the beach and so all evidence would have been washed away. Indeed, the shape of the coast 6,000 years ago was very different to what it is today, as shown the Neolithic forest at Redcar which is periodically revealed by tides beneath the vertical pier. It was growing on dry land, and scientists believe that sea levels have risen two metres since then. Therefore, any salt-making would have taken place on the tideline which today is 200 metres out to sea.

The Northern Echo: A problem the salt-makers never encountered: roadworks outside the Regal Cinema in Loftus in 1966

At Street House, early man took the unusual step of moving the later stages of the process off the beach. Why? Dr Sherlock believes there have been limited fuel on the damp beach, and the tide would have troubled the seven-hour process, so they moved to the clifftop, nearer the fuel source, where the breeze fanned the flames and dried the salt.

The Northern Echo: Skinningrove beach where, 6,000 years ago, the salt-making process may have begun. The 1880s jetty, which fed the ironworks, obviously wasn't there in those days, and now was the interestingly-shaped Second World War pillbox in the foreground. This

“It’s all there: collection, transport and manufacture,” he said. “This is Cleveland’s first industry. It beats ICI by 6,000 years!”

This is the latest discovery at a site which archaeologists have been investigating for 40 years. As well as the Neolithic house, a sizeable Roman villa from about AD370 has been found there, as well as a 7th Century Saxon cemetery with more than 100 graves.

This included the remains of a very high-ranking woman were found buried on a wooden bed surrounded by jewellery – this “Saxon princess” burial, like the discovery of salt-making, is of national, if not international, importance.