Choosing Which Metal To Use – Part 2

Last time we talked about choosing true bronze in order to get the look, feel, and functionality that we see in many pre-1600 pieces. But there is at least one metal that I generally avoid like the plague in my workshop – lead. Lead was widely used in many pre-1600 items (for that matter it wasn’t banned from house paint in the US until 1978). When we look at period examples of inexpensive jewelry, it is often made from lead, tin, or an alloy with lead.

This example, of a lead cross pendant from Egypt, is typical of some of the less expensive jewelry that would have been made for ordinary people.

Lead can also be used as a decorative element in jewelry, including niello and leaded enamels. Niello is a black substance that can be fused to the metal in a piece of jewelry to create a contrasting design. If you are interested in the details of how niello is made and used, please visit my blog on this topic.   The Anglo Saxon’s were masters in the use of niello. The black stripe up the middle of this Anglo-Saxon brooch is niello (and so is a lot of the tracery on the Sutton Hoo pieces).

Prior to 1990, Thompson Enamel, which produces a considerable percentage of the enamels used by both artists and industry, contained lead. Many companies still make leaded enamels. And it is safe to say that most enamels that were used before 1600’s would have contained lead. Lead makes the enamels very stable and gives them good flow properties. For more information on enamels, here is the link to one of my blogs on enamels and how they were used (I mentioned it last week, too).  And yes, I do sometimes use leaded enamels.

Lead, being a naturally heavy substance, was also used for many practical purposes like this steelyard weight.  The Bronze weight was cast as a hollow piece and then filled with lead until it was the desired weight.

Spindle whorls are another excellent example of an item was very frequently cast in lead. I own several lead spindle whorls, all of which were found in England. Lead, being a rather soft metal, is relatively easy to damage. Two of the spindle whorls in the bottom row of this picture are excellent examples of this. The far left whorl has been compressed slightly, and the spindle whorl that is the second from the right shows a significant gouge, probably from a plow.


Lead can certainly be used and worked in a safe manner, but legally there are a lot of issues. Every state has different rules about how much lead is legally permissible in jewelry, especially in jewelry that may be used by children. When I first started making jewelry I sat down to read all of the different regulations for the states that I was planning to merchant in. It didn’t take me long to decide that it was simply easier to avoid it. Whenever pewter or lead is called for in jewelry or other accessories, like spindle whorls, I simply use a good quality unleaded pewter from a reputable supplier.

Next Time: Are there any other issues with metal that should be considered?

Lies My Docent Told Me

I have to admit it, I snatched the name for this blog from a book that helped my daughter get through high school history – Lies My Teacher Told Me. The original book was about the most common incorrect information that is found in history text books. And it was important enough to earn a Wikipedia entry and is well worth the read.

My point is really not that far from the original book. Some of the information that I have heard or seen in museums has been really awesome, and some of it has been patently wrong. Do not hesitate to question the accuracy of information that you see in museums.

My first really glaring experience occurred in the Victoria and Albert Museum, probably about 15 years ago. I was in the Medieval gallery, a general collection of Medieval artifacts ranging from monstrances, to mirror cases, and enameled spoons to reliquaries. I was examining the designs on a reliquary when I heard an authoritative woman’s voice behind me. She was obviously giving a tour of some sort, so of course, I listened, and glanced over my shoulder. The speaker was a distinguished looking matron. Her guests were a young couple, probably in their early 30’s, and obviously upper crust – my instant thought was “donors”. And their eyes were wide with delight at all the marvelous things that they were seeing. I love enthusiasm for historical things, so I continued to listen. And then the words came, “They made these bowls out of bronze because gold would melt if they tried to enamel it”. I never heard another word. My brain was racing. This information was totally wrong. Should I speak up? No. I decided that these folks were probably not even going to remember that casual comment, and if I spoke up I would just be an “obnoxious Yank” and even more important I might affect the long term donor status of the young couple. Donors are the life blood of most museums. It just wouldn’t accomplish anything positive.

So, one of the basic rules that we always have to remember is that science – chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and all the other branches of science, operated according to the same rules in ancient times as they do now. What I knew was that most enamel, especially the often heavily leaded enamels that were used before the 1990’s, melt at between 1100 and 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. Bronze, which is what the bowls were made of, melts at about 1980 degrees Fahrenheit, and Gold, depending on the alloy, melts at about 1948 degrees. Hence, the docent’s statement was really, really, wrong. The bowls were made of bronze to save money. After they were made they could easily be gilded, to make them look as if they were made of gold, without having to pay for the additional cost of solid gold. Sigh. And just for fun, here is one of the reliquaries from the V&A.

VandA Reliquary


What other sorts of things should we be watching for when we go to museums? Generalizations are always a “red flag”. Statements like “The Romans always…” There are very few absolutes when it comes to people.

Next time: Other Hints to Help us Navigate Museum Exhibits.

Would You Know a Fertility Symbol if it Bit You?

This topic might not be something that many of us think about much in our modern existence, but it is an important concept for those who study pre-1600 civilizations. And to be honest, it can be pretty interesting to investigate. There are probably literally thousands of different fertility symbols, but I feel that people should at least be aware of some of the more obvious ones and understand why they were so important. If you are offended by mater-of-fact discussions of body parts and sexuality, this would probably be a good place for you to stop reading.

Some fertility symbols, like goddesses, vulvae, and phalli are pretty obvious. It always makes me laugh when people ask about something that I am selling in my shop, and when I explain that it is a fertility symbol, they respond with something like “Oh, I don’t need any fertility in my life!” Really? You don’t want a raise at work, and un-expected gift, or a winning lottery ticket?

Modernly many people often think of fertility purely as animal reproduction, but in a culture based on natural resources, which most pre-1600’s cultures were, the best thing that could possibly happen was fertility. Without fertility there was no grain for people and animals, no fish to dry for the winter, no animal offspring, and starvation. In a pre-modern society there was no international aid organization to rescue your group if the crops failed.

And people understood where fertility came from – sex! So the exaggerated female form, the vulva, the penis, and testicles were natural representations of a desire for fertility. Good crops, a good sailing voyage, a good trading expedition, even a battle that was won, were all viewed as fertility.

The Roman legionnaires wore an interesting assortment of decorations that were shaped like penises and testicles on their gear. Some of them were very realistic and three-dimensional, but others were much simpler. This is an example of a Roman strap end.

Roman Phallic pendantI am also perpetually amused by the “prude factor” in modern society. In a culture where everything from beer, to toothpaste, to cars, uses sex to sell their products, the matter of fact presence of a penis, or other sex organ totally freaks some people out. When I started making glass goddesses to sell in my shop, I actually had parents refuse to let their children in my shop because of the goddesses being there. A couple told me that they just didn’t want to have to explain them to their children. Now as this picture demonstrates, my goddesses are not exactly graphic content. I still sell them, along will any glass crosses, or phalli that I make, up on the counter, so that young children can’t easily see them.

etsy 76 close

So what else is out there that you might have missed? We will talk about that next time.