Blog: Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS Cymru): Archaeology

A penny and a brooch

Two rare objects have recently been kindly donated to Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales by metal detectorist, Pete Anning. One is a silver penny of King Aethelraed II (978-1013, also known as ‘The Unready’), probably minted in Gloucester during the 990s. The other is a fragment of a 7th or 8th century decorated copper alloy penannular brooch. Both objects were found in the same area in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The objects are unfortunately broken, but that does not lessen their archaeological importance, and the coin has been designated a find of national Welsh importance by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the museum’s History and Archaeology Department, said of the brooch fragment:

“Any discovery of Early Medieval metalwork has special significance as we know so little - compared with the later Medieval period – about fashions and styles circulating around Wales. The surviving terminal is decorated with a recessed panel, ridges imitating filigree, and a central setting for a glass or amber stud. It belongs to a style of brooch characteristic of Western Britain.”

As neither of the objects are classed as treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act, they are legally the property of the finder and landowner, but luckily for AC-NMW, Pete generously decided to donate them to the museum’s collection.

Deciding to donate

Pete has been detecting for two years, and this is not the first time he has given away his finds:

“I think the most exciting thing I ever found was a Bronze Age axe head that I found after my friend (who is also a farmer) gave me call to say they had been clearing out some ditches and I might want to have a go in the spoil. After recording the find with Mark Lodwick (PAS Co-ordinator for Wales) I gave it to the farm and it now has pride of place on their mantelpiece. The axe had been there for over 3000 years and it didn’t seem right to take it away.”

When Pete found out that his penny and brooch fragments, as Welsh examples of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval objects, were important and rare, he decided that, “it was only right that the finds should be donated to the museum. Whether it’s 3000 years old or 30 years old, it all once had a purpose or meaning. Everything has a story.”

Once an object enters a museum collection, those stories can be told by archaeologists and other researchers, and the object will be conserved and looked after for future generations.

The value of donations

Donations are valued by museums as they do not always have a fund to purchase objects for their collections and have to rely on Friends groups or applications to funding bodies such as the Art Fund. In Wales, the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project has been using its National Lottery funding to acquire treasure and some PAS-recorded objects for national and local collections since 2015, but this source will soon be coming to an end.

So, in the words of Dr Redknap, “We’re extremely grateful to Pete for his generous donation to the national collection.”

But whether finders donate, sell or keep their objects, Pete encourages everybody to get their finds recorded with PAS: “I had no idea what the early medieval brooch fragment was until Mark Lodwick saw it. I knew it was old…but that was it. If you’re not sure check – otherwise you could be throwing away some invaluable ancient history!”

The National Museum Cardiff was happy to host a behind the scenes tour to Brecon Detectorists, a group of keen treasure hunters who jumped at the opportunity to delve into the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales archives.

David Hingley set up Brecon Metal Detecting club in 2011 and is enthusiastic about promoting responsible metal detecting to its members. “Everyone who comes through that door has a condition of membership – everything over a certain age has got to be registered for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, I insist upon it,” David explains. “We’re a small club, we’ve basically capped ourselves at 10. At the moment we’re 9, we’ve had a new guy just started, the big fella, Tom.”

And newcomer, Tom Haines, is no stranger to historical finds. Even before joining the club, he shared David’s passion for responsible detecting. While out walking his dog one day last year, Tom discovered a Bronze Age knife; which he reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme so it could be properly excavated.

“By reporting it, archaeologists might want to dig it, and that ended up being the case,” he recalls. “I could have taken it home, plonked it in my own collection and no one would have learnt anything from it and it would have just crumbled away. It’s being properly preserved and looked after and archaeologists can learn a lot from it.”

The knife was just the tip of the iceberg, however, and his discovery led archaeologists to unearth a Bronze Age burial site, complete with cremated human remains. “They found a bronze age pin in there so it was a good thing that I didn’t disturb that!” The knife and pin, as well as the urn in which they (and charred bone) were discovered is currently pending through the treasure process. The hoard will likely be acquired by Brecon Museum thanks to the Saving Treasures* project.

It’s this interest in preserving archaeological artefacts that brought the club to the museum – to discover just how important their finds can be to museum researchers, conservationists and of course, archaeologists and historians.

The club’s tour kick started in the stores with Portable Antiquities Scheme Wales Liaison Officer, Mark Lodwick, where they were able to view and handle some fascinating Bronze Age axe heads. Among them was a ribbed socketed axe head found in Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan back in 2013 that was curiously stuffed with another, bent axe head and (seemingly) ritualistically buried.

From the stores, the group moved onto the conservation labs. Conservationists Louise Mumford and Owen Lazzari were on hand to answer any queries they may have when it comes to storing their non-treasure finds and show the club some exciting pieces they are currently working on. One of the most impressive pieces was a Viking period sword from Hawarden, which had been wrapped in textile and showed traces of a horn grip – all of which had been preserved by the rust formed on the sword! When x-rayed, the amount of original metal sword that had been left was minimal, so if the rust had been removed, Louise would not have been able to find the horn and textile traces and the sword would have been indistinguishable. Luckily, with careful excavation the sword could be professionally conserved and the horn and textile discovered – these elements could easily have had all traces of removed if proper procedure was not followed.

Another fascinating find in the conservation labs was a late Iron Age or Romano-British tankard, found as part of a hoard at Langstone that was still mostly in-tact, the wood having been preserved – a very delicate piece indeed!

The club were then able to see artefacts come to life in the art department, with resident artist Tony Daley.

David Hingley believes the visit to the museum was very helpful for both himself and his members: “I can understand the need for detectorists to be instructed in how to handle and store artefacts, and that more literature should be made available.” He explained that he learnt a lot and this new information can be put into immediate practise within in the club. David already keeps his own extensive coin collection (all of which have been processed and recorded by Mark Lodwick at AC-NMW) in acid free paper envelopes – essential for preventing further metal corrosion!

 “All the clubs try to instigate in all their members that you’ve got to detect responsibly. You’ve got to have permission and you’ve got to have the right gear. If you dig a hole in someone’s field – you’ve got to look at it from your own perspective - What would you say to someone if they came into your back garden and dug a hole in your lawn and then left it without filling it? You’d go mad, wouldn’t you?”  But this isn’t the only aspect of responsible detecting and David is keen to promote the other obligations detecting requires, such as the preservation of the objects themselves, “I am continually preaching to our members!”

David feels that more metal detectorists could benefit from taking the time to learn about the role of museums and conservation in particular. “In the field you watch detectorists kick open clods to see what’s in it - they do not seem to understand that it could contain a very fragile artefact a couple of hundred years old; and they break it or they find equally fragile artefacts and put them in pockets and not containers.”

*Saving Treasures; Telling Stories is helping museums in Wales to acquire the important finds discovered by metal detectorists like David, Tom and their club members. For more information on the project, click here.

Hello, Michelle and Alisha here – we are third year journalism students from the University of South Wales.

We are at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, on a one-week work placement with Saving Treasures; Telling Stories. We thought it would be interesting to study a topic completely unknown to us for our work experience, to broaden our understanding of history and how it affects us.

To begin our week, we were introduced to several museum professionals in the Archaeology department and had the opportunity to learn about the day to day running of museums and see all the work that goes on behind the scenes!  

Before working at the museum, we thought that treasure was what we’d seen in the movies - glittering chests of gold coins and shiny jewels! But when we were shown the stores in the cellar, we realised that not all artefacts are pretty to look at and many items declared treasure are of higher historical value than financial reward.

We were able to see the Conservation department, where they work to restore and carefully conserve items for the museum collections. This includes archaeological artefacts, but also pieces from the department of natural history.

After our initial exploration of the museum, our task for the week was to produce an article investigating how museums are funded and how beneficial donating archaeological finds can be to museum collections. In order to create the article, we were set a number of tasks, this included carrying out several over the phone interviews with museum curators from various museums across Wales. With plenty of research, we finally got down to business and wrote the feature, which will hopefully be published very soon!

We have really enjoyed our week in the museum, learning new things. We will miss our new friends – Alice and Rhianydd, who have been really kind and attentive during our placement. We look forward to coming back to visit and seeing new items being declared treasure.

For more information about the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project, in association with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Portable Antiquites Scheme in Wales, click here.

Hello everyone, my name’s Eirini and I am a student intern in the Archaeology and Numismatics department at NMW, Cardiff. This post is the second in my series of blogs on the numismatics collection at the Museum. Last time I took a look at the collection of Ancient Greek coins and this week I am back to examine the Roman coin collection.

While the Ancient Greeks never set foot in Wales, the Romans invaded in AD 48 so there have been a great deal of Roman coins found and reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Here are a few of my favourites from the collections.

Hoard of silver denarii found in Wick, Vale of Glamorgan (c. AD 165)

The 2 oldest coins date back to the Republic and are both coins of Mark Anthony while the rest date to the Empire. The front side of all of the Empire coins have portraits of an emperor, ranging from Nero (AD 54-68) to Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180).

The most interesting aspect of this coin hoard is the variety of reverse designs on them! There are many coins dating to the reigns of Vespasian (AD 69-79) and Trajan (AD 98-117). These coins predominately feature deities and personifications on their reverse sides. Some examples of the deities featured include Jupiter, Hercules and Mars. One design that sticks out to me is the personification of peace (Pax) holding an olive branch, sceptre and cornucopia (a horn that symbolises abundance). Other personifications include Pietas (duty) and Felicitas (good fortune).

There is an extensive variety of other reverse types on the coins including representations of the emperor and his family, types of military conquest and victories, legionary types, geographical imagery, architecture, animals and propaganda.

I like how varied the imagery is on these Roman coins as later coins found in Sully (c. AD 320), Bridgend (c. AD 310) and Llanbethery (c. AD 350) as well as our modern coins tend to have the same, repeated imagery on their reverse.

Sully Hoard of copper-alloy coins (c. AD 320)

This hoard is one of the largest hoards of Roman coins found in Wales. An incredible 5913 coins were discovered in two locations, 3 metres apart in the South Wales coastal village of Sully.

The latest coins from this collection all have the same reverse design regardless of where they were minted, from London to Rome –they represent an early single currency with a standardised design not found in the earlier hoards.

However, the designs on these coins are more crude and less detailed than the earlier Roman finds.

You might have heard of various archaeological artefacts being declared treasure by coroners, but what exactly does this entail?

Treasure hearings are one of the most cheerful aspects of a coroner’s job. Amongst all the heartache and mourning that goes with knowing the ins and outs of people’s (sometimes tragic) passing, many coroners look forward to declaring pieces of the past treasure. Not only do these items bring the coroner pleasure, but they are landmark pieces of local history that have been hidden from us for hundreds of years.

Last Thursday, 15th March, Mark Layton, HM Coroner for Pembrokeshire, declared 6 local discoveries treasure at Milford Haven Coroners Court - and I was privy to the process. First and foremost, I learned that what goes on in the court is mostly a formality. The experts at NMW offer thoroughly researched reports and advice on whether each item is treasure and Coroner’s Clerk, Gareth Warlow, compiles all the evidence prior to the hearing.

This particular hearing was full of some really stunning pieces, including a beautiful 16th Century gilt ring and a fragment of a silver Viking arm ring. The arm ring is an important piece in the puzzle that is Pembrokeshire’s possibly Nordic-influenced past. Finder, Ken Lunn was there to witness the confirmation of his landmark discovery being officially declared treasure.

But it was a post-medieval silver scabbard chape that really drew in the crowds. With the landowner attending as well as the finder’s entire family! While it may sound surprising for this to be a family affair, it is certainly exciting to see a piece of metal you have discovered on an old patch of land be confirmed as an important enough part of local history to have it marked as treasure. If only more finders would attend and take part in celebrating their role in helping the experts to build up a bigger picture of Wales’ rich history – even if it was a quick stop before Birthday lunch!

After recording each artefact and offering any comments or objections to be voiced by both landowner and finder, Mr Layton declared all the objects treasure and they will now be sent on the intrepid journey to the British Museum for valuation. They will then be acquired by Welsh museums thanks to the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It may be a long, arduous road for these little glimpses of history, but it’s important they are accurately recorded so we don’t miss on any little glimmer of light they may shine on the past.

Click here for more information on Saving Treasures; Telling Stories.

Shwmae! My name is Adelle, and I’m a PhD student at Cardiff University studying Iron Age mortuary practice in southwest Britain. I’m going to tell you about my amazing experience and some things I learned volunteering as part of the excavation team of the now-famous Iron Age chariot burial in Pembrokeshire. I’ll start from the beginning…

I thought I’d gotten a nice tan during the initial excavation in 2018, but it was only dirt. *Sigh*

The Story

I received an email in the spring of 2018 inviting me to help with an excavation of what was thought to be an Iron Age hoard discovered in a farmer’s field somewhere in Pembrokeshire. I had dreamt of the day I’d get to excavate anything Iron Age, as my passion for Welsh prehistory inspired me to move from my home in rural Kentucky (USA) to study at Cardiff. I had no idea that this opportunity would lead to the most rewarding, enriching, and educational experiences of my life.

The dig site was in a beautiful field near the entrance to a spectacular Iron Age promontory fort that was previously unknown. The thought that there is still so much left to discover about the prehistory of Wales left me buzzing with inspiration and wonder. I had never been to this farm in Pembrokeshire but it somehow felt warm and familiar, like an old friend; it felt like coming home after a very long journey.

Left to right: Chariot burial volunteers Tiffany Treadway, Felicity Sage (Dyfed Archaeological Trust), Owen Lazzari, Adelle Bricking (me!), and Michael Legge enjoying the beautiful scenery and each other’s’ company after a long day of work.

 

 

The initial excavation was…hot, to put it mildly! The clay we were digging baked in the sun as temperatures climbed to 32 degrees. The archaeology didn’t quite make sense as we searched for the rest of the “hoard”. And then, Mark Lewis, the curator at the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (and whom I am pretty sure is actually a Time Lord from Gallifrey), uncovered the top of a massive iron tyre. This was no hoard—it was a chariot burial. The first one found outside of Yorkshire and Edinburgh; here in Wales. The whole team stopped and gathered around the tyre. We stood there in silence in a mutual understanding that everything we thought we knew about the Iron Age in Wales was about to change. Some of us grabbed onto each other in fear of falling off the face of the earth as our worlds turned upside down! 

The excavation team gathered around the tyre in silent agreement that this is the coolest thing that any of us have ever experienced.

A chariot burial was beyond our timescale, and we needed the help of skilled conservators to ensure the survival of the 2,000 year-old metalwork. It was a long year until we were able to go back to uncover the chariot. With a bigger team, more time, more rainfall and more volunteers, we successfully uncovered the first chariot burial in Wales this spring. I sometimes go down to the Archaeology Conservation Laboratory at National Museum Cardiff to say hello to the chariot pieces and wish them luck as they embark on their new journey towards restoration! Louise Mumford, our archaeological conservator, is like a wizard bringing ancient and long-forgotten objects back to their former glory.

What I Learned

I learned more about archaeology during that excavation than I ever could have imagined. The combined knowledge of these archaeologists that I have long admired was mind-boggling, and I tried my best to soak in every delicious morsel of free expertise. I had read some of their books; these men and women had been teaching me since before I left Kentucky. As we discussed practice during work and theory over dinner, I felt myself becoming much more confident as an archaeologist.

Some of the dig team from Dyfed Archaeological Trust and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and I carefully excavating the chariot under the shelter during the second excavation season.

Aside from growing as a researcher, I gained a much greater understanding for the public’s perception of archaeology. The archaeology of Wales is not a niche interest for academics—as heritage, it belongs to everyone, and people are very often as enthusiastic about it as I am. For example, one of my favourite aspects of the excavation was spending time with the farmer who owns the land and his family. It was heart-warming to see their interest in not just the things we were digging up, but how we were doing it. To have our field of work understood and appreciated for the (sometimes painfully slow) process that it is, was rewarding.

After the chariot was excavated and all the parts safely lifted. A circular ring ditch with an entrance surrounded the chariot burial.

This satisfying combination of archaeological practice and public engagement has inspired me to continue volunteering at the museum for the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru). Without PAS, this excavation wouldn’t have happened, and this significant part Wales’ story would have remained untold. PAS is giving an invaluable gift to the people of Wales by documenting their material heritage and making it easily accessible to everyone. I am honoured to be a part of it, and I feel better equipped to use my own research to give back to the public.

Get involved!

I encourage everyone to volunteer for archaeological excavations. It’s one thing to see beautiful ancient objects behind glass cases, or 2D images in a book, but to be there as the earth gives way and the object is reborn from it, is nothing short of magical. It’s dirty, often laborious, but the friendships made, the knowledge gained, and the magical sense of discovery is worth every drop of sweat as we rediscover lost memories from our ancient past.

Me (right) recording Mark Lewis (left) as he prepares to help lift the tyres during the second excavation season. If digging isn’t your thing, there’s lots of other jobs to do at an excavation, including photography and recording video footage.

I hope to see some new faces at future excavations. Iechyd da!

 

The project was supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

A penny and a brooch

Two rare objects have recently been kindly donated to Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales by metal detectorist, Pete Anning. One is a silver penny of King Aethelraed II (978-1013, also known as ‘The Unready’), probably minted in Gloucester during the 990s. The other is a fragment of a 7th or 8th century decorated copper alloy penannular brooch. Both objects were found in the same area in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The objects are unfortunately broken, but that does not lessen their archaeological importance, and the coin has been designated a find of national Welsh importance by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the museum’s History and Archaeology Department, said of the brooch fragment:

“Any discovery of Early Medieval metalwork has special significance as we know so little - compared with the later Medieval period – about fashions and styles circulating around Wales. The surviving terminal is decorated with a recessed panel, ridges imitating filigree, and a central setting for a glass or amber stud. It belongs to a style of brooch characteristic of Western Britain.”

As neither of the objects are classed as treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act, they are legally the property of the finder and landowner, but luckily for AC-NMW, Pete generously decided to donate them to the museum’s collection.

Deciding to donate

Pete has been detecting for two years, and this is not the first time he has given away his finds:

“I think the most exciting thing I ever found was a Bronze Age axe head that I found after my friend (who is also a farmer) gave me call to say they had been clearing out some ditches and I might want to have a go in the spoil. After recording the find with Mark Lodwick (PAS Co-ordinator for Wales) I gave it to the farm and it now has pride of place on their mantelpiece. The axe had been there for over 3000 years and it didn’t seem right to take it away.”

When Pete found out that his penny and brooch fragments, as Welsh examples of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval objects, were important and rare, he decided that, “it was only right that the finds should be donated to the museum. Whether it’s 3000 years old or 30 years old, it all once had a purpose or meaning. Everything has a story.”

Once an object enters a museum collection, those stories can be told by archaeologists and other researchers, and the object will be conserved and looked after for future generations.

The value of donations

Donations are valued by museums as they do not always have a fund to purchase objects for their collections and have to rely on Friends groups or applications to funding bodies such as the Art Fund. In Wales, the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project has been using its National Lottery funding to acquire treasure and some PAS-recorded objects for national and local collections since 2015, but this source will soon be coming to an end.

So, in the words of Dr Redknap, “We’re extremely grateful to Pete for his generous donation to the national collection.”

But whether finders donate, sell or keep their objects, Pete encourages everybody to get their finds recorded with PAS: “I had no idea what the early medieval brooch fragment was until Mark Lodwick saw it. I knew it was old…but that was it. If you’re not sure check – otherwise you could be throwing away some invaluable ancient history!”

Into June and we have selected silicon as our element of the month. This element might not be instantly recognisable as of significance to Wales, but it does have an interesting history.

Silicon (chemical symbol – Si), atomic number 14, is a hard but brittle crystalline solid, with a blue-grey metallic lustre. Silicon is the second most abundant element (about 28% by mass) in the Earth’s crust after oxygen with which it has a strong affinity. Consequently, it took until 1823 for a scientist - Jöns Jakob Berzelius – to prepare it in pure form.

In Wales, silicon is present virtually everywhere in one form or another: from quartz (silicon dioxide, SiO2) in sedimentary siltstones, sandstones and conglomerates; complex silicates in igneous and metamorphic rocks; to sediments in soils.

Silica (silicon dioxide, or quartz) was mined extensively in the Pontneddfechan area, in South Wales, from the late 18th century until 1964 for the manufacturing of firebricks for kilns and furnaces. It occurs as a very pure material highly concentrated in quartzite within a geological unit known as the Basal Grit. Weathering and erosion of the quartzite has produced deposits of silica sand and this was extensively quarried for the production of refractory fire bricks for the smelting industries.

In North Wales, a little-known trade in rock crystal – a colourless, glassy variety of quartz crystal – took place in Snowdonia during the 18th and 19th centuries centred upon the village of Beddgelert. T. H. Parry-Williams refers to this in one of his writings. Miners and mountain guides searched for veins of quartz in the mountains and collected crystals to sell to tourists as curios and some were possibly used to make crystal chandeliers. Later, crystals were occasionally discovered in the vast slate quarries, or during the large-scale construction of forestry tracks during the 1960s.

Silicon, as silica (another name for silicon dioxide) is also important to certain organisms. In particular diatoms and sponges.

Diatoms are single-celled microscopic algae with a complex cell wall made of silica. They are abundant in all waters, produce oxygen and are food for other aquatic organisms. Diatoms are also frequently used to monitor water quality.

Sponges build their skeletons from a framework of tiny elements called spicules, which are made of silica in most sponge groups.  One of the most beautiful examples is the Venus’ Flower Basket glass sponge, which lives anchored to the deep ocean floor near the Philippines.  A pair of shrimps lives inside this sponge, breeding inside it and spending their whole lives protected within its delicate glass walls.  Thanks to this unusual symbiotic relationship, the dead skeletons of Venus’ Flower Baskets are a popular wedding gift in Japan.

Sponges are the most primitive kind of animal on Earth, and their resistant spicules are found as fossils from as far back as 580 million years ago. Silica is also important in the preservation of other types of fossil.  When dead animals or plants are buried, silica from groundwater can fill in the pores and other empty spaces in wood, bone or shells, and/or it can replace the original remains as they decay or dissolve.  This is most common in areas where the groundwater has high silica levels, due to volcanic activity or erosion of silica-rich rocks.  The organic remains act as a focal point for silica formation, and often the rock surrounding the fossils is made of different minerals.  For example, shells that were originally made of calcium carbonate can dissolve and be replaced by silica, whilst being fossilised within limestone (calcium carbonate).  Extracting the fossils is a simple process of putting the rock in some acid and waiting for it to dissolve, leaving behind the silicified fossils.  The Museum’s fossil collections include many silicified shells of brachiopods, ammonites, bryozoans and other sea creatures.

One of the most spectacular types of fossil preserved in silica is ‘petrified wood’.  Silica replaced the original cells of the wood as it decayed and also filled in any gaps, literally ‘turning it to stone’.  In some places, including Patagonia and the USA, whole tree trunks replaced by silica are found in so called ‘petrified forests’.  Other plant fossils, such as cones, can also be fossilised in this way.

Chert is a rock made of very small crystals of silica.  Many major chert deposits formed at the bottom of ancient oceans from ‘siliceous ooze’, which is made of the skeletal remains of millions of tiny organisms including diatoms and radiolarians (single-celled plankton).  Chert nodules can also form within other rocks through chemical processes. 

Chert found within chalk is known as flint, and was a very important material for making tools throughout Prehistory. Tools are made by knapping, that is striking a prepared flint edge, or striking platform, with a harder stone to detach pieces called flakes or blades. These flakes, blades, and indeed the core from which they are struck can then be modified with secondary working into fine tool forms. Amongst the most skilful are fine arrowheads, including these from a Bronze Age grave at Breach Farm, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales. Flint was generally the material of choice for making sharp cutting tools as it is so fine-grained and fractures conchoidally and cleanly it gives a really sharp cutting edge. Indeed, so much so, that anecdotally eye-surgeons are reported to occasionally use a freshly struck flint blade in the operating theatre!

Because it is very fine-grained and hard, chert can preserve fossils of very small things from far back in our planet’s history.  The oldest potential fossils on Earth are found in cherts, and include the possible remains of bacteria from over 3 billion years ago.  Younger fossils, from the Rhynie Chert of northern Scotland, provide a glimpse of one of the earliest land communities, 400 million years ago.  Simple plants, and animals including primitive spider-like creatures and scorpions, were preserved in fine detail thanks to silica-rich water from volcanic hot springs.

Opal is a hydrated form of silica, meaning that it contains between 3 and 21% water.  Unlike standard silica, it does not have a set crystal form, but some of its forms diffract light, creating a beautiful iridescent effect in a variety of different colours.  For this reason, opal has been prized for centuries as a gemstone for making pendants, rings and other jewellery.  Australia produces a lot of the world’s opal, and is also a source of rare and spectacular opalised fossils.  The shells of invertebrates such as belemnites (prehistoric squid-like creatures), and even dinosaur bones, have been replaced by opal, creating very colourful specimens in a world where fossils are usually grey or brown.

Continuing the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements, for May we have selected lead. Everyone knows that lead is heavy, or more correctly dense, but did you know how important it was to the Roman Empire?

Mad, bad and dangerous to use – lead in Roman times

In Roman times lead was used extensively throughout the Empire. The chemical symbol for lead is Pb which comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum, and is also the derivation of the word ‘plumbing’.

The extraction of lead ore is reasonably straightforward, and there was an abundant supply within the ever expanding empire. As well as being easy to find and one of the easiest metals to extract, lead is soft and malleable, has a relatively low melting point of 327.5°c (“low enough to melt in a camp fire”) and it is much denser and heavier than other common metals. It is also possible to cast it. This meant that it was widely produced and used for an enormous range of purposes from industrial to domestic.

The Romans were famous for their plumbing systems, and as lead pipes replaced older constructions made of stone and wood, ever more elaborate plumbing systems could be created. In 2011 during the excavation undertaken by Cardiff University of the Southern Canabae at Caerleon an example of a lead water pipe was excavated close to the amphitheatre. It has a diameter of 0.12m, is bulged in the middle where two lengths of pipe have been joined using a wiped joint, and there are remains of a round collar pierced by iron nails at one end (to the left in the image) where it was probably attached to a wooden tank or pipe. As can be seen, the main pipe has been tapped by a narrower pipe and they were presumably used to feed a fountain or water feature within the large courtyard building found alongside.

The malleable nature of lead, and its relatively low melting point also made it very useful for soldering and repair work, for architectural fittings and for lining containers. It was even used as a type of Rawlplug.  Its density made it ideal for weights and its abundance made it cheap enough to be used in a whole range of everyday objects, from a variety of containers, to lamps used to light Roman homes, luggage labels and stamps of all varieties. It was used in paint and in medicines and cosmetics and it was even used to sweeten and colour wine. Perhaps most important of all most ores of lead also contain a small quantity of silver and, in some instances the value of silver outweighed the value of lead. For an economy so dependent on silver this precious by-product was of great importance.

A perfect example of the everyday use of lead is the Roman lead bread stamp from Prysg Field in Caerleon (see the image on the right). Within the Fortress bread was baked in a communal oven and the bread stamps were used by each Company to clearly identify their bread ration for the day. The one in the photograph below was for the ‘Century of Quintinus’.

The simple lead lamp from Gelligaer near Caerphilly (shown on the right) illustrates a common form found on Roman sites – cheap and utilitarian. The main tray would have been filled with tallow (animal fat) and a wick would have extended to the raised area.

The wonderful curse tablet (shown on the right) found at Caerleon is the only such object so far recovered from Wales. It clearly illustrates the malleable and soft nature of the metal but also links to its cultural status as a ‘base’ metal. Scratched into the surface of the lead is a curse invoking the aid of the goddess Nemesis against a thief of a cloak and boots.

Research has shown that the letters of the inscriptions at Caerleon were painted exclusively using a red pigment called litharge (PbO), also known as red lead. Traces of red can still be seen on a stone inscription found at the Amphitheatre in Caerleon (shown on the right).

The heavy quality of lead meant that the Romans used it to make weights or to weigh things down. A Mediterranean style anchor stock from a small cargo ship was found just off the coast of the Llyn Peninsula at Porth Felen, Aberdaron.

The Romans cast the lead they mined into ingots known as ‘pigs’. Originally the lead mines in Britain were under the direct control of the Roman Authorities but this responsibility was later handed over to trusted local agents who leased the lead mines out to local companies on payment of a levy. A Roman lead pig found at Carmel in Whitford shows the insignia of one such agent, Gaius Nipius Ascanius. Other examples found in Britain have marks such as “EX ARG” (Ex argentariis), indicating that it was from a lead-silver works, or Deceangl[icum] indicating it was lead from the Deceanglic (Flintshire) region.

Lead in Roman Wales

According to Pliny, lead “is extracted with great labour in Spain and throughout the Gallic provinces; but in Britannia it is found in the upper stratum of the earth, in such abundance, that a law has been spontaneously made, prohibiting any one from working more than a certain quantity of it.” (Natural History, Book 34, Chapter 49)

Lead was so important to the Romans that they started extracting the ore almost as soon as they arrived in Britain. The Mendip area around Charterhouse in modern day Somerset was an important area for lead mining and evidence shows that mining began here as early as AD49. Originally mining was under the control of the Army, and in the Mendip Hills at this time that was the Second Augustan Legion. Their experience in overseeing the extraction of lead mines may well have proved useful when the Legion transferred to their new headquarters in Caerleon in AD74/5.

The area around Draethen woods near Lower Machen, contained lead ore reasonably high in silver content, certainly comparable to the Mendips and higher than any other lead ores to be found in South Wales. Draethen is just 10 miles away from Caerleon, about the same distance from the Roman fort at Gelligaer and even closer to the fort at Caerphilly. In 1937 work on the construction of a new bypass in Lower Machen uncovered evidence of Roman occupation, including evidence of a working floor with layers of charcoal and numerous pieces of lead and lumps of lead ore.  Nash-Williams (Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1939) states that the early date of the pottery and coin finds suggest that Lower Machen “was certainly in Roman hands by the time of the completion of the Roman military conquest of South Wales in AD75, possibly before”. More recent discoveries of pottery also suggest an occupation period of c AD 70-100.

The 1965 exploration of ‘Roman Mine’ in Draethen throws more light on Roman lead mining in this area. In Roman times lead ore was extracted by laying wooden fires against the rock, heating the rock to a high temperature and then throwing cold water or vinegar onto it. This caused the rock to split into smaller pieces which could then be sorted by hand within the mine. The waste, known as ‘deads’, was packed into side chambers and empty crevices and the ore was brought to the surface on wooden trays or in leather sacks and wooden buckets. The evidence found within Roman Mine exactly matches this technique. Charcoal was found throughout the mine, even in the smaller tunnels, and the side chambers were filled with waste. The walls and roof of the tunnels were covered in a thick black patina caused by the production of an enormous amount of smoke. The creation of so much smoke also meant that the Romans had to sink shafts at regular intervals in order to create a through draft and the main passage of Roman Mine has many such outlets. No tools were found in Roman Mine but pick marks are frequent throughout the tunnels.

Who worked these mines? Nash-Williams (Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1939) presumes that the labourers who worked in Draethen were “slaves and convicts working under the supervision of a military guard, and the settlement would be under the control of an officer or government official.” It is likely that the lives of these miners were short and judging by the very small spaces of some of the worked areas within Roman mine it is possible that some of the labourers were children.

A detailed report on the lead mines in Draethen can be found here and more information about the objects found during the exploration of the mine can be found here.

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) - Lead poisoning in Roman times

Lead, despite all its many useful qualities, is also toxic. When ingested or inhaled, lead enters the bloodstream and inhibits the production of haemoglobin which is needed by red cells to carry oxygen. When lead levels in the blood increase it has a devastating effects on the body, including irreversible neurological damage. Children are particularly vulnerable because their tissue is softer and their brains are still developing.

Contemporary writing makes it clear that Romans were aware of the dangerous effects of lead and knew it could lead to insanity and death.

Pliny, in his Natural Histories, wrote about the noxious fumes that emanated from lead furnaces. Vitruvius in De Architectura suggests the use of earthen pipes to convey water because “that conveyed in lead must be injurious to the human system.” He goes on to note that “This may be verified by observing the workers in lead, who are of a pallid colour; for in casting lead, the fumes from it fixing on the different members, and daily burning them, destroy the vigour of the blood; water should therefore on no account be conducted in leaden pipes if we are desirous that it should be wholesome.” Celsus in De Medicina urges the use of rain water, conveyed through earthen pipes into a covered cistern.

However, although some advised against its use it was such a commonly used and important metal that it was almost impossible to manage without it. The vast majority of Romans probably remained unaware of the dangers and continued to use it in their everyday lives.

The study of lead levels in individuals from the Romano-British period is enabling researchers to gain a greater understanding of normal levels for different regions, and allows a growing degree of confidence in the identification of immigrants into an area.  In complementary isotope studies the remains of the man found in the coffin at Caerleon showed lead concentrations of 4 parts per million (ppm), preserved in his teeth, which is typical of someone from the local area at this period.

Lead pollution in Ancient times.

The Romans’ extensive use of lead gives us a fascinating insight into the ups and downs of Roman history. In 2018 analysis of cores taken from Greenland’s ice sheet by the Norwegian Institute of Air Research showed that environmental pollution is not just a modern phenomenon. Pollution from lead mines can be traced in the layers of ice and clearly show the pollution left behind in ancient times. The researchers were able to use their measurements of lead pollution to track major historical events and trends. A clear pattern emerges where lead pollution drops during times of war, as fighting disrupts lead production. It then increases during periods of stability and prosperity.  Lead pollution rose dramatically from the end of the Roman Republic and through the first 200 years of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana. The measurements also starkly show the fall of this great Empire. The Antonine Plague struck in AD 165, a devastating pandemic that historians think was either smallpox or measles. Almost five million people died over the 15 years that the plague raged in the Empire, and whilst the Empire continued after the plague came to an end its economy never recovered. This is clearly shown in the low levels of lead in the ice layers during the years of the Plague and the centuries following it. The high lead emissions of the Pax Romana end at exactly the same time as the plague struck and do not reach those same levels again for more than 500 years.

More information about this fascinating research can be found here.

The museum’s geology collections contain many examples of lead ores from Wales and around the world including lead sulphide, or galena, the main ore of lead. Post-1845 (when official records started being kept) in excess of 1.2 Million tons of lead concentrate was produced from Welsh mines, but with a history of mining dating back to at least Roman times that figure should be considerably greater.

Natural weathering and oxidation of lead ores results in the formation of some beautifully coloured minerals. A few examples are illustrated here. It should also be noted that not all lead-bearing minerals are toxic – certain compounds containing lead are very stable. Experiments have shown that polluted mine dumps containing lead can be stabilised by oxidising some of the lead into phosphates such as pyromorphite or plumbogummite.

In recognition of this Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales will be running a series of monthly blogs, each one covering a different chemical element and its significance to Wales. Look out for these throughout the year on our website.

To start off our series of blogs, for January we have silver.

Silver (chemical symbol – Ag), atomic number 47, is one of the original seven metals of alchemy and was represented by the symbol of a crescent moon. Silver is a precious metal, but it has never been as valuable as gold.

In Wales, silver has played an important role in the history of Wales, but this is often forgotten. In the northernmost part of Ceredigion (the old county of Cardiganshire) near to the village of Goginan lie a number of disused mines which were some of the richest silver producers in the history of the British Isles. The Romans almost certainly had a part to play in the discovery of the metal-rich mineral veins, but it was Queen Elizabeth I who oversaw their development as silver mines.

It is reported that the first rich discovery of silver was made at Cwmsymlog (sometimes written as Cum sum luck in historical records) mine in 1583 by Thomas Smythe, Chief Customs Officer for the Port of London. It is much more likely that it was discovered by Ulrich Frosse, a German mining engineer experienced in silver mining who visited the mine at about the same time and advised Smythe. During the reign of Elizabeth I it is estimated that 4 tons of silver was produced from the Cardiganshire mines.

King James I and King Charles I both made handsome profits from the mines (producing 7 and 100 tons of silver respectively), so much so that in 1638 Charles I decided to establish a mint nearby at Aberystwyth Castle. Its success ultimately led to its destruction by Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War in 1646.

Amgueddfa Cymru holds examples of the many silver coins minted at Aberystwyth. Their characteristic feature is the three feathers on both sides of the coin. The addition of a small open book at the top signifies that the silver was produced by Thomas Bushell from the Cardiganshire mines on behalf of the Company of Mines Royal.

Maps and mine plans produced to market the silver mines to investors are some of the earliest to have been made in Britain. The Library at AC-NMW holds several versions of William Waller’s maps produced for the Company of Mine Adventurers in 1693 and 1704 as well as Sir John Pettus’ Fodinae Regales published in 1670.

One of the mines, Bwlch-yr-eskir-hir [Esgair Hir], was much hyped as the Welsh Potosi and from the silver was produced a silver ewer inscribed ‘The Mines of Bwlch-yr-Eskir-hir’, c.1692. The mine was, however, a failure. The quantity of silver produced never lived up to expectations, but this was more to do with the geology than mining methods. It is perhaps better known as the site involved in a legal case against the Crown’s control over precious metals. The case, brought by the landowner Sir Carbery Pryse in 1693, ended the tyranny of the Mines Royal.

Productive silver mining continued in north Cardiganshire, firstly, under the Company of Mine Adventurers and then through the Industrial Revolution by a number of private companies. Total silver production within this part of Wales exceeded 150 tons of silver metal.

Remarkably, it took until the 1980s for geologists to identify the mineral responsible for the high concentrations of silver in the small area of Wales. It is tetrahedrite – a copper, zinc, iron, antimony sulphide mineral - within which silver can replace some of the copper, zinc and iron. At Esgair Hir mine tetrahedrite has been recorded as containing up to 18 wt. % silver. Important ore specimens used during the identification of this mineral are preserved in our geological collections at the Museum.

Naturally occurring silver metal – known as native silver – does not occur in visible concentrations in any of the Welsh mines, but the Museum holds some of the world’s finest examples in its mineral collection. The specimens, from the Kongsberg mine in Norway, are exceptional in their quality and were acquired during the 1980s as part of the R. J. King collection.