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.