Galena

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Mound City galena collection
Multiple pieces of galena which were recovered from Mound City Group during  archeological excavations in the early 20th century.  As a result of being exposed to air for nearly 100 years, the original sheen has been reduced to the current dull grey color.

NPS photo / Tom Engberg

Shine bright, like a diamond

Galena (PbS) is a lead-ore that is quite common in many parts of the world. Galena's most recognized qualities are its bright metallic luster, its density and its nearly perfect cube shape. While shining very brightly at first, galena slowly tarnishes to a dull grey once exposed to air. When broken into smaller pieces, the resulting pieces will exhibit a near-perfect shape in three directions that appear to intersect at 90 degrees. It is one of the most common metallic sulfides and is frequently associated with silver minerals.

 
Oval Kohl Tube
Oval Kohl Tube with Cover (2 & 3/4 inches tall) and Separate Stick.  Kohl is primarily made of finely ground galena and was used to darken the eyelids and as mascara.

Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

What was galena used for?
Some of the earliest known people to use galena were the ancient Egyptians, dating back to over 3,000 years ago. Galena was mined at the Red Sea coastal area in Egypt known as Gebel Zeit. The Egyptians used galena as eye paint (also known as Kohl) and also as ornamental adornments. When galena is crushed or ground, it will produce a bright, silvery glittery powder. Once the powder oxidizes and turns into a pure white, it can then be mixed with water and used as a paint. The ancient Egyptians were known to smear the crushed galena under their eyes to help reduce the glare of the blazing sun and to repel disease-carrying flies.

Galena use by prehistoric and historic Native Americans

During the middle-woodland period in North America, galena was widely used and traded. The major source for galena during this period was the Upper Mississippi Valley near present-day Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. These prehistoric people would use galena as paint and as ornamental adornments. It was found in ceremonial burial sites (Hopewell and Mississippian) and was likely used because of its attractive, silvery color. At the Mississippian site Cahokia, it was discovered that many burial sites contained galena. It appears that Cahokia was a major consumer and exporter of galena. With the introduction of Europeans to North America in the late 15th century, galena continues to be important, but in another major way. Historic period Mississippi Valley tribes would mine galena in order to smelt (process of taking out most or all non-lead metals) it into lead which would then be molded into shot pellets for guns.
 

Galena and Mound City Group

 
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Duration:
46 seconds

Watch this video to learn about the galena that was discovered at Mound City and some of the likely uses of this illustrious ore.

 
Lead_Acid_Batteries-sm
Lead acid batteries on a pallet

Image courtesy of Sandia National Labs

Is galena used today?
It is rare to see galena worn as an adornment or used as face paint today due to its content of lead. Because of health concerns related to lead and lead compounds, there has been significant reductions in its commercial use from paints to ammunition to cosmetics. Galena ore contains silver and is a major source for the world's silver. Although the typical amount of silver contained in galena is significantly less than the amount of lead, the value of the silver far exceeds that of lead (over 300 times more valuable than lead). Lead's primary use in today's culture is in lead-acid batteries which are used in just about every automobile. With the number of worldwide automobiles well into the millions and a healthy market for new automobiles, the demand for galena ore and the lead that it contains, is not likely to decrease in the near future.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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