Lead was essential to the smooth running of the Roman Empire. It was used for piping for aqueducts and plumbing, pewter, coffins, and gutters for villas, as well as a source of the silver that sometimes occurred in the same mineral deposits. Fifty-two sheets of Mendip lead still line the great bath at Bath which is a few miles from Charterhouse (see below).
The largest Roman lead mines were located in or near the Rio Tinto (river) in southern Hispania. In Britannia the largest sources were at Mendip, South West England and especially at Charterhouse. In A.D. 49, six years after the invasion and conquest of Britain, the Romans had the lead mines of Mendip and those of Derbyshire, Shropshire, Yorkshire and Wales running at full shift. By A.D.70, Britain had surpassed Hispania as the leading lead-producing province. The Spanish soon lodged a complaint with the Emperor Vespasian, who in turn put limits on the amount of lead being produced in Britain. However British lead production continued to increase and ingots (or pigs) of lead have been found datable to the late second - early third century. Research has found that British lead (i.e. Somerset lead) was used in Pompeii - the town destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D.79.
The Romans mined lead from the Mendips, Derbyshire, Durham, and Northumberland. The silver content of ores from these areas was significantly lower than Athenian lead-silver mines and Asia Minor mines.
Smelting is used to convert lead into its purest form. The extraction of lead occurs in a double decomposition reaction as the components of galena are decomposed to create lead. Sulfide is the reducing agent in this reaction, and fuel is only needed for high temperature maintenance. Lead must first be converted to its oxide form by roasting below 800C using domestic fire, charcoal or dry wood. This is done easily as lead melts at 327C. Lead oxide (PbO) is the oxide form of galena which reacts with the unroasted form lead sulfide (PbS) to form lead (Pb) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).
Details on Roman lead smelting have not been published even though open hearths were found in the Mendips by Rahtz and Boon. These remains contained smelted and unsmelted ores. The remains of first-century smelting were found in Pentre, Ffwrndan. Although this discovery was valuable, reconstruction of the remains were impossible due to damage. An extracted ore from the site had a lead content of 3 oz. 5 dwt. per ton and another piece contained 9 oz. 16 dwt per ton of lead.