Of Pigs and Ancient Butts

When is a pig not a pig?

Folks in the Peak District of England could tell you. There walk over pigs, trip over them, covet them and collect them without regard for DEFRA livestock regulations.

For a pig is the term for something the Romans left behind: cast iron proof that they were here, once, working the land for all its rich mineral deposits.

Or perhaps I should say cast lead proof: because pigs are ingots; not of gold, but of the humble poor metal, lead. They were dropped by our Latin visitors, usually inscribed. The first was found at Cromford Moor in 1777, carrying the intelligence that it was made in the birthing days of the time after Christ: in AD 117-138.

These pigs travelled far. One identifiable as coming from the Peak District was found in Sussex.

No one can work out where the mines were now because the Romans did not burrow underground for their lead. They dug huge shallow bowls, and slap-dash pre-archaeology has long since lost the locations of crucial finds.

But ever since, they’ve been digging tunnels to mine the impoverished metal. There are seven mines recorded in the Peak District alone in the Domesday book: by the middle of the sixteenth century they had hit the water table and were using crude pumps to lift water out of the tunnels by bucket.

It was never a desired occupation because Death stalked the tiny passages with his scythe.

There is one tale of one 15-year-old boy who was pulled up a shaft by his thumb: only for the thumb to come off and the boy to fall to his death. But greater than the dangers of light deprivation, falling down shafts and tunnels caving in, was the spectre of what the Peak District villagers called belland: plumbism. Lead poisoning.

Peakland Heritage – a wonderful source of information based on a bewildering variety of Peak District records – has found an early description of lead poisoning: “A continual Asthma or difficulty of Breathing seizes the Patient, with a dejection of Appetite, his Complexion turns pale and yellowish; these are attended with a dry cough and hoarseness; swelling of the joints and limbs ensue, which are rendered useless…”

Lead is two-faced soul. A waterproof malleable metal, easily melted and moulded, with uses as various as printing and cosmetics, it is nevertheless a grey-fingered lethal poisoner.

One of the strangest deaths ever to have been recorded in the Peak mines concerns poor,petty Dorothy Mateley of Ashover Parish.

The story was unearthed in the parish registers from 1660.

Nobody liked Dorothy very much. She could not bring herself to tell the truth, and her fingers were lighter than they should be. She had a shabby reputation and would always be the first accused when something went missing.

She used to wash the ore at the mine, day in, day out: constantly in contact with dull silver Death himself.

But Death chose to claim her in a different way.

One day, a colleague looked in her pockets for that twopence she needed, and it was gone. Immediately, she accused Dorothy.

Me? Dorothy said: not me. And she denied with admirable vehemence, though all the locals would have bet the contents of their hovels that she had possession of that twopence. “May the ground open up and swallow me,” she cried,”if I have taken that twopence!”

But a couple of minutes after her rhetoric, she was heard crying for help. A witness watched as the round beneath Dorothy began- unbelievably –  to spin.

She twirled and twirled in a grisly three-metre descent, after which, folklore tells it, a boulder hit her on the head and the ground caved in over her.

They dug her up eventually; far too late. And in her pocket were the two pennies she had denied so loudly.

The parish registers didn’t know what to make of it, of course. They read: “1660 – Dorothy Mately, – supposed wife of John Flint of this parish, forswore herself, whereupon the ground opened, and she sunk over her head 23rd March and being found dead, she was buried 25th March.”

We stared at the deathly overtones of lead for centuries and yet still, it was the mainstay of Queen Elizabeth, fair Oriana’s mask of youth: a white powder which would cover scars effectively. And yesterday as I walked at Ham House on the Thames at Richmond, there were huge elaborate water cisterns fashioned, as the guttering was for centuries, out of lead.

They were very beautiful. Elegance itself. Yet the evidence of its power was still at work upcountry as they were being moulded, stalking the poor, for whom twopence might carry untold significance.

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46 thoughts on “Of Pigs and Ancient Butts

  1. I had a theory once upon a time that the rise in dog aggression was due ti the lead in petrol – them being so close to the exhaust fumes when waiting to cross raods! dont know if I was right but toddlers and dogs I would stand behinf me while waiting! of course there is none in the petrol now but I still do it for any other nasties and because this old lady feels exhaust fumes are BAD – we used it for so many things – lead pipes in the home – garden ornaments – grew up surrounded by it.
    A good lesson don’t tempt the gods up there on mount Olympus:) you never know

    great post as always

  2. So interesting Kate, thanks for sharing 🙂 “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Hope Mum doing well today!

  3. Learning, always learning when I visit here, Kate. For years, I’ve been most aware of the hazards posed by lead-based paint (and, at that, I believed it to be hazardous only when an unwitting toddler chewed on such a tainted surface)….. This morning I read “the mainstay of Queen Elizabeth, fair Oriana’s mask of youth: a white powder which would cover scars effectively . . .” and upon a very brief search find: http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=292 Sometimes a little knowledge might horrify (read that terrify) us!!

    Hope your Mom is doing well.

  4. “….contents of their hovels….” Laughed out loud. What a great description. A great lesson today, Kate, about parts of England I know little about. I love the story of Dorothy, too.

  5. human relationships with various metals and other stuff dug up are long and difficukt.

    the worst is those asbestos mines before we knew what exposure did.

      1. we have people dying here from cancer who grew up playing on the asbestos mine dumps. one family, all 5 children died the same way – between 0 and 52 years old

  6. Fascinating story, Kate! Thank you. Lead-based paint has been outlawed in this country for years, primarily because children used to eat the old paint chips and get lead poisoning because of it. Each time a house sells or is conveyed here in the USA, there must also be a “lead paint certification” indicating whether lead paint has been used by the current owner, or that no lead paint is in the house.

    The story is reminiscent of the “mad hatters” who used mercury in their trade, and went mad. Took decades or perhaps centuries before mercury use was restricted, and thermometers using mercury were banned and rounded up for safe disposal. What gets me is that because of the poverty of those who worked those mines, the effects of lead were ignored, and the people considered by many to be expendable. Surely someone made the connection long before anything was done about it.

    Wonder if perhaps people ever considered that Dorothy was in fact “dotty” from her exposure to lead? In any event, how is the back-story of Dorothy known, or is it somewhere in the records? Poor Dorothy! hoisted by her own petard – or is that “un”-hoisted? 😆

    How’s June? I’m keeping her and your Dad lifted up! Hope he’s getting some rest himself!

  7. Kate, your stories always fascinate . . . peppered with grisly details like lost thumbs, children plunging to death, poisonings, beheadings, and miners being swallowed up by the earth. You’re a master at unearthing the dirt and giving us the straight scoop. Thanks!

    Hope your mum is doing well.

  8. And yet another amazing post filling me with all sorts of new knowledge of things. Lead. When I think of all the people who drank their fill out of crystal glasses filled with lead.

    I’ve enjoyed catching up on your posts of late, Kate. Hope your Easter was happy and that your mom is doing okay.

  9. Rather a grim ending for poor old Dorothy. The son of a friend of mine was ill for a number of years with all sorts of vague complaints and behavioural problems – eventually, lead proved to be the culprit (but from goodness knows where)

  10. I was just excited that I did know it was a pig! Did you really find one on a walk? I recall some of those walks that I took where you really could sink up to your head in the bogs. I’m certain she died that way.

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