LEAD Action News
Vol 2 no 3
The History of Leadpart 3
by Christopher Winder
This is the third in a series of extracts from Dr Winder's History of Lead, from his book "The Developmental Neurotoxicity of Lead", published by MTP Press Ltd 1984. Reprinted with kind permission.
At the ancient Hittite city of Catal Huyuk in Turkey, beads of lead have been uncovered that date back to about 6500 years BC [Gale and Stos-Gale,1981]. Lead has been found in a sixth millennium context at Yarum Tepe in Iraq, at the fifth millennium site of Arpachieh in Iraq and at the fourth millennium sites of Anau I in Turkestan, Hissar III in Iraq, and Naqada in Egypt. These finds suggest that lead smelting, albeit on a small scale, began at least as early as nine thousand years ago. In the British Museum in London, the oldest artefact of lead is EA 32138, a lead statuette found at the temple of Osiris on the site of Abydos, and purchased in Egypt in 1899. This object is dated on stylistic grounds to the predynastic period of Egypt [circa 3800 BC].
To place these dates in a historical context, the age of metals began in the Mediterranean world some time in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, well before the transition of the relatively unspecialized and essentially agricultural society of the late Neolithic into Phase I of the Early Bronze Age [usually designated from about 3500 BC to about 2900 BC in the Aegean].
It can be seen that the association of man and lead goes back millennia, not centuries. The importance of lead in pre-Roman times however, lay in its association with silver. The production of silver as a by-product of burning galena was probably discovered at an early date. In its bare essentials the winning of silver in this way presented no great difficulty. A piece of galena is reduced to lead when heated in an ordinary wood fire: if the heating is prolonged, this lead is oxidised into a powdery ash [litharge, PbO, lead oxide], leaving a small drop of pure silver. As argentiferous galena contains variable but generally small amounts of silver, bulk quantities could only be obtained when a number of technical problems were overcome. Success was credited to tribes living on the Black Sea near Pontus in Asia Minor in the early centuries of the third millennium [Forbes,1950]. The critically important discovery of cupellation was made next. In the process the lead oxide produced by burning ore is absorbed onto a large bulk of such material as bone ash. This process was probably in use around 2500 BC, since silver objects of high purity had appeared by that date. As a result of these technical discoveries, lead smelting industries arose in several places in the ancient world, particularly in Asia Minor [Aitchinson,1960].
Although lead was not extensively worked by the ancient Egyptians, it was one of the earliest metals known, since its use dates from predynastic times [before 3800 BC]. There is evidence to suggest it was used for sinkers in fishing nets, in glazes, glasses and enamels, and for ornaments. The Ptolemaic and later papyri mention the plumber who manufactures and repairs water pipes [Lucas and Harris, 1962]. At Troy, Gowland  refers to shapeless lumps of lead found in Troy I, the lowest city [3000-2500 BC]. A small lead statue of a naked goddess was found in Troy II, the prehistoric fortress [2800-1900 BC]. Lead was used in Crete as early as 2600-2400 BC in the form of small votive axes in tombs. They also made coffins from lead.
Lead was known in the early Sumerian period when it was known as the metal of Ea, the god of Eridu. The association of metals with gods and planets goes back to the Sumerians where lead is Ninmah [the mother goddess] probably associated with Ninurta [Saturn]. An old Assyrian code of laws of 2000 BC shows that the lead was used as currency, and later [1400-1050 BC] lead, in the form of animals heads, was a common form of exchange. Lead tumblers were found in very early graves below the royal cemetery at Ur. Six rolls of lead with Hittite inscriptions of the 9th-7th centuries BC were found at Assur. An inscription on lead was found at Nineveh, and fragments of thin sheets on which amuletic texts were written were found at Babylon. Heroditus describes the use of lead in the bridge across the Euphrates at Babylon [the Histories, i, 186], and Didorus Siculus mentions the use of lead as a damp course in the walls and on the floors of the hanging gardens of Babylon [the Library of History, ii, 10]. For a discussion of ancient sources see Partigton .
The ancient Hebrews were an essentially pastoral and agricultural people, although it is certain they obtained metals, including lead. Ophereth was the Hebrew word for lead, and it is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Lead is used metaphorically on a number of occasions e.g. in Exodus where it was noted that the Pharaohs host "sank as lead" when the Red Sea closed.
A working knowledge of cupellation, smelting and alloying is evident when they are alluded to in the allegorical purification or strengthening of the Israelites by the Lord.
Lead is also mentioned on lists of metals known to Hebrews.
Lastly, the Hebrews also knew how to use lead.
Lead was certainly one of the first metals to be mined by man in the known major civilisations. Lead mines were worked in Sardinia, Athens and Carthage. The Phoenicians mined it in Spain around 2000 BC and these workings were taken over by Rome after the fall of Carthage. Some of the compounds of lead, such as white and red lead, are amongst the oldest pigments known, and it is possible to trace their history back 2500 years [Xenophon, 400 BC]. White lead was used as a pottery glaze, and other lead compounds have been used as cosmetics. Some metallic compounds, such as galena and malachite [native basic copper carbonate] may have been used as eye-paints in Egypt from the prehistoric Baderian period, about 5000 years BC [Lucas and Harris, 1962]. The practice of using galena for eye-paint survives in fact to the present day, particularly in India where it is known as surma, and among Asian immigrants [Attenburrow et al, 1980].
Evidence is available to suggest that the use of lead in the ancient world was not restricted to the emerging cultures close to the Mediterranean or Middle East. In India, lead was used for making amulets and there is evidence of its use in China where it was used as a stimulant in the court of the emperor. It has also been found in pre-Columbian Mexico, where a lead amulet has been discovered from that period [Waldron and Stofen, 1974]. §
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Updated 13 November 2012