Thursday, February 5, 2015

Lead Mining in the British Isles (1800 B.C.)

This paper by David Barrowclough examines evidence for the earliest lead mining in Northern Europe. 

Compelling evidence of lead mining in Anglezarke‐Rivington shows predicted spikes in the Heavy Metals Assay and the Saturated Isothermal Remanent Magnetism (SIRM) of radio-carbon dated peat bog sections.  The results appear to show spikes corresponding to the times when lead smelting was active.

Additionally, the presence of galena crystal over the Collared Urns* of two Early Bronze Age individuals seems to confirm that the site was active by at least 1800 B.C.  To Barrowclough, this suggests an association between these individuals and the mines.
Lead Mines in Lancashire

These finds continue to show the sophistication of the metalworking craft that came to the Isles in the second half of the third millennium.  The spikes also show what may be a fairly significant lead smelting industry.  If the individuals associated with the galena specialized in a lead extraction operation, then it certainly indicates that lead was widely used for something.

As Barrowclough mentions in this paper, it's easy to become ensnared in viewing ancient metallurgy through the warped lens of periodization.  Lead has an ancient history and surprising uses.

What could lead have use for in the Early Bronze Age? 

Lead sulfide (galena) can be used to make domestic pottery glaze which is honey-colored but can also be made, orange, copper or red.  Lead was also used in cosmetics, paints and sweeteners?!

The Earliest Evidence for Lead Extraction in Northern Europe and Possible Lead Miners’ Burials: Early Bronze Age Lead Mining dated to the Second Millennium BC.  David Barrowclough, University of Cambridge (undated) [Link]

*Collared Urns and Food Vessels probably developed from interaction between Bell Beakers and the native Peterborough.  Both retain the somewhat older Beaker motifs and develop alongside the lagging Beakers.


  1. Lead and tin make pewter, an easily worked metal for a variety of purposes. Lead is also a good material for making dies in which to pure molten metal to make tools.

    1. They were certainly mining lead. A few other sites seem to indicate this was more widespread than we might think.
      It will be interesting if more heavy metals testing on human remains reveal high levels of aresenic and lead.
      It's thought lead poisoning sterilized Roman men. In those days lead salt was used to sweeten wine(!)

    2. Seems like an interesting idea but do we have any evidence of any such uses of lead, for example broken casts?

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  3. Acton Park Phase palstaves have a certain lead content. North Wales was supplying these to lowland Britain. The Deceangli tribe were known to be mining lead on Halkyn Mountain in North Wales during the Roman period, however I suspect that this was being carried out in the area far earlier, contemporary with copper mining on the Great Orme 30 miles to the west.

    1. Doing some reading I found mentions of early lead mining in other places, especially Iberia 5kbp, but couldn't find any references. Lead useage goes back at least to the PPNB so it is I think fairly probable that the first metallurgist in Western Europe, especially the Isles, were more sophisticated than is popularly believed.

      The Greeks and Romans made very substantial use of lead. One theory suggests impotence from lead poisioning brought down the Roman Empire.

    2. Romans used lead massively in plumbing (plumbus = lead). Apparently Minoans did the same much earlier and I guess that it were the Etruscans who transmitted this knowledge (would need to check but sounds plausible).

      I can't find any reference either for significant use of lead in Chalcolithic Iberia. Some was used in the Bronze Age in "bronze" alloys, whose composition varied quite a bit, and then it was used in the Iron Age as "paper" for writing.

      Let me throw a wild guess: the lead may have been exported to Crete. Else, where is all that mined lead?

    3. "One theory suggests impotence from lead poisioning brought down the Roman Empire."

      Doesn't make sense: lead plumbing was widespread in Modern Europe until recently (my house, built in the 1920s, still had some lead pipes years ago) and people managed quite well. Sure: long term health may be affected but the hygienic advantages of plumbing make up for it with a big plus.

      Another thing is using lead as "medicine" or cosmetic but that was surely less common (most people wouldn't have access to such "luxuries" - well, actually not even to plumbing for all I know).