Lost lead pigs

There are two stories used to support the notion that the Romans mined lead in upper Swaledale, both concerning people in the 1800s finding apparently datable lead pigs. However, since in both cases the finds have disappeared, it’s rather difficult to give them credence. This short article explains the stories of the finds and weighs the pros and cons of their likely credibility.

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.

It is reasonable to speculate that the Romans did mine lead in Swaledale, since until the late 1800s/early 1900s it was a very well-known lead-mining area, and in several other contemporary lead-mining areas of northern England there is evidence of mining by the Romans. It’s just that those areas have evidence of it, and Swaledale does not.

The first report of a Roman lead pig found in Swaledale was recorded by Yorkshire historian Harry Speight. He wrote in his book Romantic Richmondshire, published in 1897, p. 207, that the lead mines 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 (p. 251) 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 (p. 251). 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 (p. 15) 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 example, in 1731 two Roman lead pigs were found together near Dacre, in Nidderdale, about four miles from the lead mines on Greenhow Hill. The find was reported by the Rector of Ripley in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol. 41 (1735), p. 560. He wrote that on the side of an old trackway near the hamlet of Heyshaw, a countryman’s horse slipped when its foot fell into a hole covered with heather. The curious rider thrust his hand into the hole and pulled out the two large pigs of lead.

Both pigs became possessions of the Ingleby family of Ripley Castle, and in 1772 one of them was bequeathed to the British Museum, where it remains. The other was kept at Ripley Castle until being sold by auction in the mid-1990s. It came up for auction again in 2007 when it was sold by Bonham’s of London for £36,000. The pigs are almost identical, measuring about 58.5cm long, by 13.5cm wide, by 10cm deep, and weighing 70kg.

The raised inscription on the top reads IMP CAES DOMITIANO AUG COS VII, which when the abbreviations are expanded becomes IMPERATORE CAESARE DOMITIANO AUGUSTO CONSULE VII, translating as Emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus seventh year as consul. Another inscription on another face reads BRIG, which is thought to be an abbreviation for BRIGANTICUM, the name the Romans gave to the Pennine region.

Among other Roman lead pigs at the British Museum are three with inscriptions dating them to the period of Emperor Hadrian. The one with the briefest inscription was found in Shropshire in 1795, and reads IMP hadriani AUG (Emperor Hadrian Augustus). This might help us to form a view about the reported find at the Hurst mines in Swaledale.

An important point might be Speight’s brief description of it as a ‘piece of lead’, not a pig and not an ingot, suggesting it was a fragment. And his report of the inscription ADRIAN, not HADRIANI, supports this. Perhaps this was a reason for it to be rejected by the British Museum, and consequently for it to be deemed of little value and melted down. Perhaps it was the last fragment of what had been a small collection of ancient pigs being progressively used up at the mines or even systematically plundered by locals.

Given the known details of other finds, the stories of the Swaledale finds seem plausible, and it would appear that at no stage has anyone gained from promoting them. The sparse, unembellished details have the ring of truth. However, without the finds and without any evidence other than hearsay we can only guess at whether they are wholly true, or distortions of lesser truths, or merely romantic inventions based on what must have been fairly widespread public knowledge of what genuine Roman lead pigs should look like.