Pepper Wreck Pewter Artifacts

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The earliest pewter pieces in the archaeological record date from the Roman period - from the 3rd century onwards - and amount to only a few hundred in number. It is not known how pewter was utilized through the early Middle Ages, except for some chalices and patens found at Metz, France, in priests' tombs dating from the 11th and 12th centuries.

It is thought that pewter may have been used in poor churches as a substitute of silver for the liturgical tools. Anyway, its production developed during this period and by the 13th century the production of pewter utensils was a well organized craft in France. In the 14th century its production was regulated in England, suggesting that also there it was a developing craft.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, as the houses of the growing middle classes became more comfortable and domestic life more pleasant, pewter became a suitable material for daily use. First used mainly for kitchen utensils, it soon became a widely used material, replacing wood and coarse pottery in the fabrication of dishes, trays, measures, flagons, jugs, tankards, and mugs, but also of spoons, candlesticks, boxes, and other household utensils.

Candle holders (Photo: Pedro Gonçalves, CNANS).

In the 16th and 17th centuries it became decorated with cast motifs, particularly on the lids and handles of tankards; in Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia incised decoration and undulating lines made with a wheel became fairly popular.

Although many metalic alloys do not survive well in marine environments, pewter performs quite well. Even after several centuries on the sea, both pewterer marks and possession marks are frequently preserved on the surface of pewter ware. This is the case of the large pewter collection of 269 artifacts recovered from the sunken ruins of Port Royal by treasure hunter Robert Marx in the 1960s and by a team from Texas A&M University and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology during the 1980s. Besides 155 pieces of flatware this collection includes hollowware, spoons, kitchen utensils, and other artifacts.

Corrosion on marine environments depends greatly on the alkalinity or acidity of the medium surrounding the artifact. The quality of the alloy - in terms of the percentages of the several metals mixed to obtain a certain type of pewter - and the quality of the mixture can influence the corrosion process. Surfaces can present small eruptions or uneven holes, as a result of different rates of corrosion of the metals that form the alloy.

Pewter is not frequently found in terrestrial sites.

On one hand it does not preserve well in contact with most soils in the presence of moisture, and on the other hand pewter objects were generally not discarded because they had a long durability and a fairly high value when sold for recasting.

Stack of pewter plates and saucers found in the SJB1 area (Photo: CNANS)

Nevertheless, pewter ware is by no means rare. Many museums and private collections have large assemblages of pewter ware, unfortunately many times collected piece by piece, frequently without a cultural provenience, almost always acquired from auctions, particulars, and antique shops.

A long list of artifacts can be made with pewter. Museum and private collections frequently include trays, plates, cups, tankards, porringers, bowls, bottles, bottle caps boxes, all sorts of kitchen utensils - such as ladles, funnels, and colanders - but also common house objects like chamber pots, urinals, candlesticks, and oil lamps, picture frames, decorative figures, watch cases, sundials, inkstands and sand casters. Other artifact types include tokens, buttons, buckles, badges, rings, chains, as well as toys, medical instruments, or ecclesiastical wares and religious implements.

Pewter is an alloy of tin and lead used at least since the Greek times. When it is new it presents a beautiful silver color, turning darker as it ages and becoming gray with a lustrous shine.

Most items existing today were cast in heavy bronze moulds, sometimes in several pieces that were later soldered together. The composition of the alloys varied according to the items to be manufactured, going from less than 1% to up to 40% of lead. Other metals were added to the alloy, such as copper, zinc, or antimony, these last two utilized only towards the end of the 17th century. When more lead is used in the alloy the mixture is more malleable, and it is easier cast difficult shapes. On the other hand, the smaller the amount of lead used, the stronger and sturdier the resulting alloy is.

Alloys with high contents of lead - up to 40% - were known as "black metal" and generally used in non food-related items, a good practice in view of its very poisonous nature. Alloys with 23 to 30% of lead (and 1 to 2% of copper) were known as "lay metal" and used to cast most hollowware, such as measures, beakers, and candlesticks. Much sturdier was the "trifle metal", a mixture with more or less 10% of lead, used to cast tankards, pots, buttons, buckles, candle moulds, and toys. Finally, "fine pewter" was used to make "solid-ware" or "sadware", the flat and easy to cast flatware to which more strength was demanded. It was a mixture with less than 1% of lead and 1 to 3 % of copper, sometimes hammered after being casted - and before being finished at the lathe - to increase its density.

Tin: Tin was already found in ancient Egyptian tombs, by then considered just a different form of lead. Known to the Greeks, who called the British Isles Cassiterides, tin was widely exported from Cornwall to the rest of Europe during the Roman period.

Tin is a metallic element (symbol Sn), highly ductile and malleable at a temperature of 100° C (212° F). It melts at about 232° C (about 450° F), boils at about 2260° C (about 4100° F), and has a specific gravity of 7.28. Tin's atomic number is 50 and its atomic weight is 118.69. The principal ore of tin is the mineral cassiterite (SnO2) found in Cornwall, England and Germany, but also in the Malay Peninsula, Bolivia, Brazil, Australia, and Alaska. Tin ranks 49th in abundance of the elements in the earth's crust.

Lead: Lead is an exceptionally soft metal and thus very easy to work. It was one of the first known metals, used by the Egyptians, already mentioned in the Old Testament, and utilized by the Romans in many trades, from the making of water pipes, soldered with an alloy of lead and tin, to the casting of statuettes and sounding leads for nautical use.

Lead is a metallic element (symbol Pb), very dense, soft, malleable, and ductile. When gently heated it can be forced through annular holes, making it very easy to cast objects. Lead melts at 328° C (662° F), boils at 1740° C (3164° F), and has a specific gravity of 11.34. Its atomic number is 82 and its atomic weight is 207.20. Lead occurs naturally in eight isotopic forms, of which four are stable and four radioactive. The ore of lead is widely distributed all over the world in the form of a sulfide called galena. It ranks 36th in natural abundance among elements in the earth's crust. As a raw material lead presents a major drawback: it is highly poisonous.

Portuguese Pewter Ware

In Portugal pewter workshops prospered at least since the 16th century, but the very rare use of pewterer marks make it very difficult to study, and it is therefore still mostly unknown.

Pewter was widely used aboard ships for its resistance both to corrosion and impact, not breaking as frequently as most pottery did.

Archaeological finds are rare. In the 1970s an assemblage has been found at the mouth of the Arade river, in the south of Portugal, and was said to bear late 17th century English pewterer marks.

It was dug up from the margin of the river by a bulldozer, together with rotten timbers, and bought by a private collector.

Two pewter plates have been found in Baleal, in the 1980s, on a 16th century wreck site at very shallow depths.

Another collection was recovered by an avocational archaeologist on the site of a late 17th century wreck, presumed to be the Grande Principessa di Toscanna, wrecked on the coast a few miles north of the village of Cascais, on December 1696. This flatware also bears pewterer's marks but has not yet been studied.

A stack of pewter plates was also found in the Faro A shipwreck, found in the late 1990s by sport divers off the south coast of Portugal.

The São Julião da Barra collection is therefore the fifth assemblage to have been found underwater in Portugal. It is presumed to date from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Collections of pewter ware are not very common on 16th and 17th century wreck sites. Although several Iberian wrecks from this period did yield small quantities of pewter flatware assemblages, such as the the Espiritu Santo (1554), Girona (1588), Sta. Maria de la Rosa (1588), and Atocha (1622), only the Trinidad Valencera (1588) has a collection of similar size (15 pieces).

Pewter flatware was found on 3 of the 28 sites of archaeological relevance above mentioned: SJB1, SJB2, and SJB4. A total of 23 flatware items have been recovered, distributed by the different sites as shown on Table I below:

São Julião da Barra - Pewter Flatware
Ref. No. Description Provenience
0465.02.0016 Plate SJB1/1994
0465.02.0017 Plate SJB1/1994
63.04 Small plate SJB4/1996-97
148.01 Plate SJB2/1996-97
161.09 5 plates and 9 saucers SJB1/1996-97
165.01 Deep dish SJB2/1996-97
168.01 Deep dish SJB2/1996-97
171.01 Plate SJB2/1996-97
171.02 Plate SJB2/1996-97
205.01 Plate SJB2/1996-97

The six items found in the SJB2 area - believed to be the wreck of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires - were embedded in the layer that prpoduced most artifacts and can therefore be related with the shipwreck.

None of the remaining pieces found in the area can be directly related to any of the shipwrecks sunk at S. Julião da Barra whose identity is known, and therefore be dated accurately within a narrow period of time.

São Julião da Barra Pewter Ware

The description of the artifacts presented below follows the terminology adopted by Gotelipe-Miller for the Port Royal pewter flatware, as shown below on the figure below and on Table II.

Characterization of flatware is generally based on its shape, although pewter flatware was sold by weight rather than by size or diameter. Pewter flatware has a rim, a bouge (the curved part) and a well (the bottom).

Typologies are based on the shape and decoration of the rims, and on the relation between the size of the rim and the total diameter of the item.

Rims can be very broad (this type being known as Cardinal's hat), broad, medium and narrow. Decorations range from plain to several reeds (or rings), either cast or incised.

Pewter Flatware Types (after Gotelibe-Miller, p. 28)
Charger Serving tray with Ø > 42 cm
Dish Serving tray 27 cm > Ø > 42 cm
Deep dish Serving tray with h > 3 cm
Plate Dish for individual use 16.5 cm > Ø >27 cm
Saucer Dish for individual use Ø < 16.5 cm (also called butter plate)
Paten Flat small tray for ecclesiastical uses
Bowl Deep container with rounded sides
Basin Deep container with straight bottom and somewhat straight sides

The collection from São Julião da Barra shows only three types of rims. This study followed the rim characterization presented in Gotelipe-Miller and Brownsword & Pitt, as shown bellow, on Table III, and considered the single incised reed as Gotelibe-Miller Type 4 for simplicity.1 2


Pewter Flatware Rim Types (after Gotelibe-Miller and Brownsword & Pitt)
Rim type Gotelibe-Miller Brownsword & Pitt
Plain Rim Type 1 Not considered
Single reed Type 2 Type a if angled

Type c if with groove

Type d if rounded

Type e if below

Simple raised multiple reed Type 3 Not considered
Incised simple reed Not considered Type b
Incised multiple reed Type 4 Not considered
Complex multiple reed Type 5 Not considered


Seven plates of this collection have touchmarks. There are several published inventories of pewter marks for different countries, regions, and time spans, although it was not possible to identify the S. Julião da Barra touchmarks.

Touchmark on plates and saucers with ref. no. 161.09, catalog nos. 10-15.
Touchmark on plates and saucers with ref. no. 161.09, catalog nos. 10-15.
Touchmark on plate with ref. no. 0465.02.0016 and catalog no. 01.
Touchmark on plate with ref. no. 0465.02.0016 and catalog no. 01.

Possession Marks

The possession marks consist of scratched initials on one plate and two dishes:

Plate with the catalogue No. 02 bears the initials "A" and "T" on the inferior side;

Dish No. 19 has a letter "M" scratched on the upper side; and

Dish No. 20 has a letter "V" scrached on the inferior side.

See the image below:



1. Brownword, R. and Pitt, E.E.H. "X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis of English 13-16th Century Pewter Flatware", Archaeometry 26.2 (1984), pp. 237-244.

2. Gotelipe-Miller, Shirley, Pewter and Pewterers from Port Royal Jamaica: Flatware before 1692, Thesis on file at Texas A&M University, College Station, 1990.

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