The dangers of lead exposure have been recognised for millennia. In the first century A.D. Dioscorides observed in his De Materia Medica that “lead makes the mind give way”Read more by clicking HERE, and also at the end of this post.
Can you remember the time you embarked on your first metal detecting spree? Do you recollect the excitement, dreams and anticipation of what you might find? Was it a coin, something special or just a load of dross? Whatever it was, from that moment on, were you hooked?
I remember seeing a young boy – must have been about 12 – being shown the ropes by his father. They had been detecting for a couple of hours and dad was back at the car having a drink, but the lad’s swinging continued.
“Keep the coil flat”, urged dad as the boy hit on a promising signal. And then, “Sounds like iron to me!”
The boy had been taught well and the target was in the plug he extracted. The signal was much stronger now and I quietly willed the find to be a hammered coin, but it wasn’t to be. Everyone gathered around as he expertly eliminated clods of earth until nothing remained but … a lump of lead! The young lad wasn’t too disappointed; the thrill of the chase itself had been compensation enough.
By this time, his Mum had returned from a car boot sale to take him home after this first lesson, leaving dad to do some serious searching. The boy had found it exciting. An interested bystander asked what he was going to do with the lead. Mum suggested that they take it home and frame it!
A Full Pouch
I’m reminded of all those days detecting in a freshly ploughed sticky field staggering about in wellies that had collected so much mud, I was at least 6” taller. I complained to anyone who would listen that my feet were ‘as heavy as lead’. My finds’ pouch was often weighed down with the same non-ferrous grey ballast!
Indeed, many lead objects are unearthed by detectorists and assigned to the scrap box with little investigation. Which is a pity, for it is always worth washing and closely examining each lead find. I’ll give you a few examples why.
Just a Lump of Lead
You should always be careful what you throw away. A chunk of unidentified lead hidden in a tin for almost 20 years turned out to be a very interesting find for a detectorist from Maidstone in Kent. He found the item in a small orchard in the mid 1990’s long before the Internet and detecting forums made identification of items easy. Books on Roman coins were researched at the time but nothing could be found relating to the item.
Valens Trial Piece [possibly] : KENT-7F3206 : Courtesy of the PAS : Unknown Finder
After registering the find, the old piece of lead was taken to London to be viewed by Dr. Sam Moorhead, National Finds Adviser, Ancient Coins at the British Museum. The detectorist was surprised when his ‘piece of lead’ was confirmed as (quite possibly) a trial piece of the reverse die of a silver medallion of Valens (AD 364-78). How it came to be in a small field in Kent is a mystery, as the mintmark is from Trier, in Germany.
The Ubiquitous Spindle Whorl
In an an article for The Searcher magazine in December 2016, detectorist Pat Law said that one of his favourite finds was the humble lead spindle whorl. Friends jokingly say that Pat has a ‘Whorl Pool’. Why does the ubiquitous spindle whorl get him ‘buzzing’? I’ll let him explain.
“Spindle whorls have been made from many materials throughout history. It is the ones cast in lead that I find enthralling and I remember that incredulity when I found my first one. They are fascinating!”
LVPL-CCAF : Lead spindle whorl or weight dating to the medieval period (c.AD 1200-1700). Courtesy of the PAS
Spindle Whorls – and weights found outside secure archaeological contexts such as these are difficult to date because their use and style remains continuous from the Roman period onwards. Most examples likely date from the medieval period onwards.
The Roman Period
The real versatility of lead was realised by the Romans … and I’m not talking about small amounts of the metal. For example, to sweeten their wines and other foods, they would boil down (in lead utensils) grapes into a variety of syrups, all of which had one thing in common, according to a Canadian research scientist’s article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The fruit was simmered slowly in lead pots or lead-lined copper kettles. Indeed, many experts asked if lead poisoning, with its other uses in aqueducts, water pipes, household implements and medicine brought about the fall of the Roman Empire.
Lead was used to make spindle whorls, weights for balances, lower classes of personal seals and occasionally gaming pieces and even dice. Small plates of lead were inscribed with curses against enemies or requests to the Gods before being folded or rolled up before thrown in the river or deposited on temple sites. Detectorists often find them.
Lead – possible Curse Tablet. Courtesy PAS
A rectangle cut from cast lead sheet of thickness 1.7mm, neatly and tightly rolled thrice, leaving a central aperture. The distinction between a curse tablet and a fishing net sinker of Early Medieval form resides in the careful cutting and rolling of the former, which contrasts with the casual rolling or clenching of a weight of similar construction. Courtesy of the PAS: NLM-92F452
Pottery and leather mending was another use. How many of you have found pieces of pot with a plug of embedded lead? Small holes in a damaged pot or a worn shoe could be quite satisfactorily repaired with a drop of molten lead.
Miscellany of Lead Artefacts
In the Medieval period, lead was used for a great many products and when used for harness or personal decoration in the shape of belt ornaments, was frequently embellished with gilding.
In addition to the spindle whorl already mentioned there were numerous types of weight, security seals for rolls of cloth, cannon balls and token coinage … and the personal seal matrix. Their function was to identify the owner by stamping an impression on a waxed disc attached to letters. Like this one.
The Medieval circular seal matrix from the UKDFD is lead, with an eight-pointed star forming the intaglio. The Latin legend is + S’ IOH’I ABOT – an abbreviated form of Sigillum Iohannis Abot – Seal of John Abot. The reverse of the seal has an integral lug for handling.
Another important medieval item made of lead was the pilgrim’s badge. These were sold at many religious shrines and are another regular detectorist find. Within every pilgrim was an element of the worldly tourist and badges were essentially religious souvenirs.
They were worn on either the hat or cloak and collected as mementoes of the shrines visited. They were so popular that tens of thousands were collected every year – after a long arduous journey to reach their destination it’s only natural people wanted something to commemorate, and prove, they had actually visited the shrine! Today, as proof of a visit, they would probably take a ‘selfie’.
Probably the most important pilgrimage that could be made in England in the 13th century was to Canterbury Cathedral to see the shrine of Thomas Becket and it can be assumed that badges were produced in massive quantities. Indeed, hundreds of thousands must have been sold each year. Therefore, one might expect that if a detectorist found a badge, it would most likely have come, like the one above, from Canterbury. Creative Commons PAS
People often made journeys to a saint’s shrine – usually where the saint was buried, to pray for their help. Some shrines were famous for miraculous healing. Making a journey specifically to visit the shrine was called a pilgrimage, and it is a common practice in many religions, although not often part of modern Christianity.
When a pilgrim had visited a shrine, and made their prayers to the saint, they would often buy a souvenir known as an ampulla. These could be made in lead, bronze or even silver, depending on what the visitor could afford. Some shrines also sold holy water which was thought to have healing properties. A pilgrim could take back holy water [in the ampulla] to someone who was too sick to make the pilgrimage themselves, or to sprinkle on fields in hope of a good harvest.
At risk of sounding like an archaeologist, I have tried my hand at imaginative writing. What do you think?
Sometime during the 15th century a weary pilgrim returned from his visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to his home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. In one of his fields he carefully took the lead ampulla containing holy water and suspended on a cord around his neck, pierced a hole in the side, and allowed the liquid to flow onto the soil. How do I know all this, and just how much is just conjecture and imaginative writing? Seasoned detectorists know the story because many have found discarded ampullae in fields (and from shrines other than Walsingham).
The catalyst for this section was an unusual ampulla found by Detectorist Des Milkins of the Weston Historical Research and Detecting Association (WHRADA). I thank him for sharing the story with me.
You will notice that the ampulla has its side loops missing, and depicts a [holed] scallop shell; the other side a crown over the letter W. The W signifies the Priory of Our Lady at Walsingham. It’s interesting to note that the scallop shell was a popular design on ampullae as the scallops wandering over the seabed could be likened to pilgrims wandering from shrine to shrine.
Des told me,”I was pleased with the fact that the ampulla was in quite good condition for its age. When I had a good look … I noticed that the scallop side had a hole in it and I could see what looked like the pellets on the back of a hammered coin.”
WOW. This is the first time that I have heard of an ampulla containing coins. One of the three coins appears to be a Henry VI penny of the mid 15th century, and helps with an approximate timescale of deposit. I can only guess that the pilgrim/farmer wanted to be doubly sure of the efficiency of the Our Lady’s holy water and added to its potency by adding the silver coins. Perhaps not!
Guano Lead Seal – Another Bag of Crap
I mustn’t forget the lead seal, an artefact that probably features amongst the commoner items found by detectorists searching farmland. The ones I show are from bags of guano [bird droppings used as fertiliser]. Notice the trademark of the cornucopia (horn of plenty) in the first example. BTW, The best examples of bag seals are to be found at bagseals.org.
Stuart Elton has been collecting seals – donated by detectorists – and the best were included in a book which I reviewed in the July 2017. Bag seals can be so interesting for the detectorist who isn’t in the ‘gold stater league. Research into one of the more common finds proves just how much you can learn from the hobby.
“From pre-historic times, the contents of farm middens had been used as a convenient source of soil enrichment … some forms of refuse and manure had unproductive side effects on certain crops however, and from medieval times it had been realised that nitrate-rich bird droppings were a valuable source of fertiliser. It was common then for the gentry to keep dove cotes as a source of meat … and the droppings were regarded as prime material for spreading on the land.”Advert for ANGLO-CONTINENTAL
However, it needs a lot of pigeons to make much impression on the large acreages that developed following the enclosure acts, and this led to the nitrate trade of South America. Off the coast of Peru there are islands that have been the roost of vast colonies of seabirds for centuries. This has created to a build-up of droppings, or guano.
Lead corrosion forms a white crust on the surface of the object. Another good indication that the object is made of lead will appear to be much heaver than you would expect from just looking at it. Remember that lead oxide is poisonous and care should be taken when handling corroded lead objects, to ensure that none of it is ingested. Be safe.
Many thanks to the following for help in the production of this blog.
Paul Glenister: PAS: UKDFD: The Searcher magazine: Pat Law
New England Journal of Medicine:
Dioscorides: Stuart Elton: Des Milkins: Bagseals.com: Yeti:
Dr. Sam Moorhead: Wikepedia Commons
Spent ages on this post only to discover that some of the content was published on a previous occasion. Old men repeat themselves. Sorry.