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Secrets of the Iron Age smelters who made metal in the hills of the West

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 06, 2012

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A young archaeologist from the Blackdown Hills has organised a special event to unlock the secrets of the area's ancient iron industry.

Marc Cox, 24, is leading the team behind "Living Iron Age", a family event in Whitestaunton where children and adults can find out how local tribespeople turned iron ore into metal. There will also be fun Iron Age activities to try out, such making pots, cooking and dressing up.

The event is supported by the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership, which gave the project a grant from its Sustainable Development Fund. The funding will enable Marc and his colleagues from Escot Education to recreate a slice of Iron Age life in the Blackdown Hills.

Prior to the event, students from Exeter University and Richard Huish College in Taunton, academics and local history enthusiasts will all be involved in extracting iron ore from the ground, making charcoal from local trees and gathering local clay to make a furnace. It will take several days of preparation to produce an iron 'bloom' from the furnace during the event.

Mark explains: "In the Blackdown Hills you have all the natural resources you need to produce iron close together, which is why the industry grew up here and survived for centuries. By recreating the processes on site with authentic materials, we'll be able to get a real feel for the challenges faced by our Iron Age ancestors, which is very exciting".

Marc wants anyone who thinks they may have slag, the waste product of the iron industry, on their land to bring a piece along for him to look at on the day.

"Slag looks like chunks of glassy, black rock. There's nothing else in the Blackdowns quite like it. I've seen really well preserved iron workings in local back gardens and fields, and I'm sure that there are a lot more waiting to be discovered."

Marc, who is about to embark on a PhD in experimental archaeology at Exeter University, has been fascinated by the area's Iron Age heritage since studying the subject at Richard Huish College.

That led him to a degree in archaeology, where he specialised in the Blackdown Hills' early iron industry.

After graduating, Marc started work at Escot Education, enthusing children about ancient technology. He also took part in several expeditions to study massive metal working sites in India and Georgia. He says:

"Those trips really opened my eyes internationally, and showed me how few ancient metal working landscapes have been properly studied around the world. I realised how important it was to carry on the work in the Blackdowns, and I hope that this event will excite people and generate a whole new phase of research here."

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  • BlackdownHill  |  September 10 2012, 9:43AM

    Living Iron Age takes place on Saturday 29 September at Newhaven Farm, Cinder Hill, Whitestaunton TA20 3DT. It's free and you can come along any time 12noon - 5pm. This event is part of the Blackdown Hills Heritage Day. For more information, see the Blackdown Hills AONB website.