There are two stories used to support the notion that the Romans mined lead in upper Swaledale, both concerning people in the 1800s finding datable lead pigs. To anyone unfamiliar with the term, a pig is an ingot or bar produced by smelting mined ore and pouring the resultant molten metal into a mould to set. These pigs are then sold on the wholesale market to metal workers who melt them down to form the shapes they require.
Roman lead pigs have been found in several parts of northern England. The problem with the Swaledale pigs is that they no longer exist. The question might be raised – did they ever exist? The following is a brief summary of the stories of the finds.
The first was recorded by Yorkshire historian Harry Speight in his book Romantic Richmondshire, published in 1897. He said that the lead mines then operational at Hurst in Swaledale were: “believed to be on the site of a Roman penal settlement, to which the Roman commanders sent their convicts to labour. A piece of lead bearing the name of ADRIAN was discovered in one of the oldest workings about 50 years ago, and is now in the British Museum.”
Sadly, if this piece of lead ever existed it seems that it never went to the British Museum. We can be sure that it is not there now, and hasn’t been there for at least the last 60 years. Writing in 1956, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby reported in their book The Yorkshire Dales that the pig was now lost. In 1965, Arthur Raistrick and Bernard Jennings added in their History of Lead Mining in the Pennines (p. 3) that all efforts to trace it had failed, and it was feared it had been melted down. Just as a final check, I contacted the British Museum in 2012, and after a thorough search by one of the curators had it confirmed that no such piece exists in their collection, and nor do they have any record of it ever being submitted to the museum.
The second story of a Roman lead pig found in Swaledale was also described by Hartley and Ingilby in their book of 1956. They told of the find occurring sometime around the 1870s at Crackpot in the Little Haverdale valley. They reported that its historic value had not been realised and it had been melted down. Later, Edmund Cooper, in his wonderfully succinct book A History of Swaledale (1973), expanded the story, revealing that this pig was said to have borne the imprint of an emperor’s head and some Roman lettering, and had been found in Crackpot Gill by Mr Francis Garth. Cooper said he had been told this detail by the finder’s daughter, who must have been very old at the time of his interview. She added that her father melted it down “to fix iron crooks into stone gateposts.”
It might seem incredible that these reported pigs of lead could be so readily identified as Roman by conveniently having the identities of Roman emperors embossed upon them. But in fact, that’s exactly what the Roman lead miners did. The finds that do exist, at the British Museum and elsewhere, are all identified by their Roman inscriptions, including emperors’ names, which must have been impressed in the moulds for the pigs.
For more information on the Swaledale finds and an analysis of the credibility of the stories, see the full article here: Lost Roman pigs