Small lead or lead-alloy vessels can be bird feeders, inkwells, cup weights, dice shakers or be of unknown function. A few are described below with tips on identification and recording.
Most of these objects should be recorded as Lead. Only use Lead Alloy if the object seems rather too lightweight to be pure lead.
PAS object type(s) to use
In general, the term VESSEL should be used. The exception is for cup weights; use WEIGHT for these.
PAS object classification to use
If you know it, add the specific type of vessel to the classification field. For example, for bird feeders, use bird feeder, and for inkwells, use inkwell.
How to take the dimensions
It’s not immediately obvious how to take the dimensions of these small vessels, so it is worth explaining how you have done it in the Description field.
Height and width are relatively straightforward; the height is generally taken from the base to the rim (measure up the flat reverse) and the width is taken perpendicular to this, across the flat reverse. the maximum (usually at the top) should be stated in the Width box, and the minimum (usually at the bottom) can be added in the Description field.
Thickness is usually used for the overall depth of the object from front to back; the maximum (usually at the top) should be stated in the Thickness box, and the minimum (usually at the bottom) can be added in the Description field; the thickness of the lead can also be described separately. The Length field is less useful and is often not filled in.
These are small lead or pewter (lead-alloy) vessels, usually with flat reverses and curved fronts, making them D-shaped when looked at from above.
Some are made in two pieces, the flat back and the curved front joined together by soldering; others appear to have been cast in one piece. They are often said to have holes, hooks or pierced lugs on the reverse, for attachment to the bars of the cage, but these features are not common on the bird feeders recorded on the PAS database.
There are many other small lead vessels, which do not have the characteristic D shape. It is uncertain whether these have the same function; alternative suggestions include inkwells, cup weights and dice shakers. See below for more on these.
An entire book was published on small lead and lead-alloy vessels in 2011, but in Dutch. It is by Theo Bottelier, and called Inktpot of Vogeldrinkbakje (‘Inkwell or Bird Drinker’). Hopefully an English version will be published in the near future.
Medieval bird feeders
There is a small group of narrow, upright bird feeders, normally with the flat reverse. Some of these have complex relief decoration in a medieval style, often with cross-hatching, similar to that found on other lead objects such as ampullae.
Egan (2005, 128-9) suggests a start date in the late 15th century for these, and Spencer (1985, 451) suggests an earlier date of c. 1400 onwards. It is possible that undecorated examples with similar narrow shapes (e.g. IOW-72B185 and NARC-5C78F2) may also date this early. Egan (2005, 128-9) feels that they continue into the 16th century, so a date of 1400-1600 is probably right for the examples with medieval-style decoration, and for similarly narrow examples. Use MEDIEVAL as broad period.
Post-medieval bird feeders
These are much more common than the earlier type. They flare from a D-shaped base, with a further wider flare at the rim. Most are undecorated apart from a few raised parallel ridges at the top, but some have a band of decoration around the rim, normally in a scrolly floral post-medieval style.
Initials are also sometimes found, perhaps cast in relief on the front or scratched on the reverse. If you have initials on yours, don’t forget to add them to the Inscription field.
Egan (2005, 128-9) does not suggest a start date for undecorated examples, but says that they continue in use until at least the late 17th century. They may overlap with the earlier type, but do not seem to have any medieval-style decoration, so it seems sensible therefore to date them to c. 1500-1700 AD.
The function of bird feeders
The best source of reliable information on these vessels is Egan 2005, 128-9. This discusses a group of four D-section lead or lead-alloy vessels, with and without decoration. It follows the evidence given in Spencer 1985 for the identification as bird feeders (holding water, greenstuff or bird seed). Spencer cites a crushed container brought in to the Museum of London still holding leguminous seed, probably vetch (Spencer 1985, footnote 24).
For a possible picture of a bird feeder in use on a rectangular cage, see the print ‘Buy a Fine Singing Bird’ in Marcellus Laroon’s series Cries of London, published in the 1680s and still available as a poster. A toy bird cage from London, thought to be 17th or 18th century, has a bird feeder shown in its decoration (Forsyth and Egan 2008, 197, no. 6.1).
These vessels would certainly be practical as bird feeders; modern food bowls for caged birds are of similar size and depth, and can also be fixed firmly to the bars of a cage.
All inkwells should have inkwell in the classification field.
Geoff Egan identified an item rather like an ampulla, but tall and rectangular, as a possible medieval inkwell, and gave it a tentative early to mid 15th-century date (in Saunders (ed) 2001, 99, fig. 83, cat. no. 34). Similar examples on the PAS database include LIN-98F38A, BUC-3803B7, WILT-276366 and DEV-178CC5.
An object from the Mary Rose (sank 1545), identified as an inkwell, is a simple hollow metal cube with a small central circular hole in one face (Gardiner and Allen 2005, 132-3, fig. 3.23). There are plenty of parallels on the PAS database, with a variety of shapes, some decorated; a selection is shown below. The Mary Rose example shows that the date-range for these starts at 1500 AD, but the date at which they went out of use is uncertain.
IOW-25ECC1 is recorded as a bird feeder, but looks more like an inkwell, with a wide rim all the way around, which looks as if it was designed to catch drops; another example with this wide rim is SWYOR-565A19.
These possible inkwells, with their small central holes or wide rims, resemble the ceramic, glass or lead inserts for post-medieval inkwells, which have both features, and so are tentatively dated to the post-medieval period.
Other small lead or lead-alloy vessels
There are many small lead vessels which do not have the characteristic D-shaped cross-section, and it is uncertain whether they all have the same function. Alternative suggestions include dice shakers, cup weights, etc.
A decorated, D-shaped bird feeder from London (Museum of London 84.136/25) was found to contain 24 dice (see Spencer 1985 for more details). A cylindrical lead container is recorded on the PAS database at LIN-47EE46, with a single die inside.
These two finds may suggest that at least some cylindrical containers were used as dice shakers, and that bird feeders may have occasionally been pressed into service for this too. It does not mean that the primary use of D-shaped vessels was as dice shakers.
There are several small lead bowls with straight, steeply sloping walls which may be a lead version of the well-known medieval to modern copper-alloy cup weight. Cup weights typically have decoration on their upper rims, and/or can be identified by being a precise weight. They should be recorded as WEIGHT.
Lead examples with decoration on the rim have pellets, whereas copper-alloy examples tend to have annulets. Cup weights have a very long period of use, from the 12th to the 19th century.
Fragmentary small lead cups or bowls can be the remains of powder-holder caps; see the separate guide to these. They tend to measure c. 30 x 20mm at their base and are c. 20mm high.