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Bid to discover how men of steel lived 300 years ago.


BUT what about the workers? That's the question which a five-year series of digs at a pioneering North East industrial site will seek to answer.

In recent times experts have pored over the ground-breaking technology used in the 18th Century to make high-quality steel at a furnace in the Derwent Valley.

Derwentcote, near Rowlands Gill, is the earliest and most complete steel-making furnace in Britain.

It was restored in 1990 by English Heritage, which manages the site.

Until now attention has focused on Derwentcote's use of cementation, a process which converted iron into steel, underlining the region's leading role in the Industrial Revolution.

Now the programme of annual excavations, which began this week, aims to fill in a significant gap in the site's history by investigating who worked at Derwentcote and how they lived their lives.

Newcastle University and English Heritage are mounting the joint project, which will concentrate excavations on the site of five workers' cottages.

University head of archaeology Dr Jane Webster says: "We know quite a bit about the industrial elements at Derwentcote and now we want to move on to the people who lived and worked there and find out what stories they have to tell.

"There are so few excavations which produce an insight into the working-class life and conditions of people who made the Industrial Revolution happen."

There is evidence for metal working on the site as far back as the 16th Century.

In the 1720s when the Derwentcote furnace was built, it could claim to be the centre of the British steelmaking industry.

The location has everything that was necessary - a watercourse to provide power, coal, clay, sandstone and charcoal from the surrounding woodlands. And, of course, the crucial ingredient of the skills and graft of the Derwentcote workers, who manned the furnace, plus a forge which worked the metal, and also mined the coal.

"The cementation process was a breakthrough as it produced much better and harder steel, and more of it," says Dr Webster.

The conical furnace chimney houses two sandstone chests into which iron bars were packed with alternate layers of charcoal powder. When the fire was lit and the chests sealed, flames and heat travelled up through flues and chimneys around them, and temperatures reached 1,100C. This heat enabled the carbon from the charcoal to diffuse into the iron.

Each cementation cycle took three weeks, producing about 10 tons of steel.

The firing took six to 10 days and the furnace was then allowed to cool for a week, before the bars could be extracted.

These bars of steel were taken to the nearby water-powered forge, to be made into items such as cutting tools and springs.

The steel had remarkable flexibility and strength, and was said to be of excellent quality.

But the excavations will concentrate on what is thought to have once been a large stone agricultural building and which was sub-divided into five cramped cottages for the workers.

It is hoped to consolidate the unearthed cottage remains, including features such as fireplaces, so that they can be viewed by site visitors.

"They are tiny houses and loads of people lived in them," says Dr Webster. "This poses questions like where did they come from, what did they eat and what did they buy with their wages?" This year the dig is looking at the cottages' outbuildings, which would probably have included a shared outdoor loo and also gardens for growing produce.

Dr Webster says: "We hope to find a toilet or cess pit, because they are really interesting. People throw all sorts of things into them.

"The census shows that people were coming and going but I imagine that it would have been a tight-knit community.

"Although conditions were cramped, they would have made the best of things.

"The Industrial Revolution started in the countryside and the workers at Derwentcote were industrial pioneers."

It is thought the cottages were occupied from around 1740 to the 1930s. This year's dig ends on July 27 and volunteers are welcome.

Dr Webster says: "We're really excited to start this series of digs over the next few years and encourage local people to get involved with the excavations."

Dr Rob Young, English Heritage historic environment adviser, says : "Derwentcote is a fascinating site and both the dig and estate work are helping to train people in archaeological and heritage skills.

"The site is the earliest known steel works in the whole country and can tell us a lot about the North East's industrial history and its place in the development of the steel trade."

To volunteer for the dig, contact


QUESTIONS The dig at Derwentcote steel furnace site aims to investigate who worked there and how they lived HOT WORK Jane Webster and the Derwentcote furnace
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 18, 2012
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