Lead Ore (Pb)

History of the Human Use of the Mineral Ore

Anglesite-Galena from the Monteponi Mine in Sardinia
Anglesite-Galena from the Monteponi Mine in Sardinia. Rob Levinsky

Lead (Pb) is a metal that occurs naturally in rounded nodules and plates up to 60 kilograms (~130 pounds) in weight: but it is quite rare in this form and typically must be smelted from one of its ores to be useful for tools. Common lead ore types used in prehistoric contexts include lead sulfide (PbS, called galena), lead carbonate (PbCO3, called cerussite or white lead spar) and lead sulfate (PbSO4, called anglesite).

Lead ores melt at 327 °C, and in that form can be easily cast. The first smelting of lead ores were experiments that took place alongside copper smelting at Vinca culture sites dated to the 5th millennium BC. Smelting raw lead to create alloyed bronzes began by the Middle Bronze Age.

Early Lead Use

So far, the earliest identified use of lead is within the Upper Paleolithic (Magdalenian) levels of El Mirón cave in Spain, where flakes of the raw mineral galena (lead sulfide) were included in a red ochre-stained burial approximately 15,700 years ago.

Beads, Pendants and Tools

The first worked lead was limited to beads and pendants. The earliest galena bead production dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, about 6500 BC. Similar beads were found at 6th millennium BC Yarim Tepe in Iraq. A bead of galena was recovered from the Neolithic chambered tomb of Quanterness in Scotland's Orkney Islands.

Two strings of a necklace made of lead and cannel coal beads were found in an early Bronze Age cist grave in Scotland.

The first alloyed materials include a small EBA bronze pin with a tin-alloy head over a clay core, found at St. Columb in Cornwall. Lead was used for anchors in Mediterranean ships beginning by the early first millennium BC, and a lead seal was found at the Early Bronze Age site of Tsoungiza, Greece.

Roman Lead Use

The Romans were the first mass producers of lead objects. They used lead for coffins, urns, tables, pipes, coins, pewter, glass, glazes and in standard weights for barter and trade. Lead was also used as a preservative and sweetener for wine: the toxic effect of regularly drinking lead-enhanced wines has been identified in bones from several Roman archaeological sites. Atmospheric pollution from Roman lead-processing has been identified within the lake sediments of An Loch Mor in the Aran Islands of Ireland.

Pewter, an alloy of lead and tin, was first manufactured in Roman times, using a variety of different recipes to produce different hardnesses and lusters. Pewter is also known from about the same time Han dynasty China, and like their Roman craftspersons, the Han produced much silver from processing argentiferous galena.

Paints and Pigments

Lead oxides were often used as paints: minium is a variety of lead mineral which produces a scarlet red color; massicot is yellow to reddish-yellow, and the oxidized lead called litharge is red. Litharge, sometimes known as red lead, was likely the first used of these pigments, despite its toxicity.

Lead was used as cosmetics--for decorating the human body--in many different cultures, including Cycladic Greece about 3000–1600 BC, where ground lead pigments were found in tools at the site of Akrotiri.

Galena was part of recipes used in New Kingdom Egypt to make eye paint, called kohl, beginning ca 1200-1000 BC, and continuing right up into modern times. In North America, galena was also used in Mesoamerican communities as a type of cosmetic pigment: a funerary vessel found in a multi-ethnic barrio at Teotihuacan (AD 200-550) contained crushed galena mixed with charcoal and mica. Evidence for similar use has been found at the Mississippian site of Etowah (AD 950-1600).


Lead sulfide, or galena, is a very common metallic sulfide often associated with silver minerals. It is easily recognized by its cubic cleavage, high density and silvery color. Two New Kingdom mines have been identified at Gebel Zeit .

Galena was collected as raw nodules in North America beginning in the Late Archaic period, ca ~3500 years ago.

The Late Archaic site of Poverty Point is considered by some scholars to have been a distribution site for galena cubes, among many other materials, between 1700-1000 BC. The Mississippian site of Cahokia was also a major consumer and exporter of lead sulfide, ca. AD 1000-1600.

A Few Lead Mines

A large roll of litharge was found at the Roman mine of Rosia Montana in Romania (ancient Dacia), where it is believed to have been used to extract gold and silver from other ores: it was certainly not mined from Rosia Montana, but likely brought there from the Apuseni Mountains, perhaps 35 km southeast of the mine.

Lead mines at Zawar in Rajasthan, India were worked at least by the late first millennium BC.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Metals, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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