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Lead pipes from a Roman bath Credit: We have plenty of textual and archaeological sources that inform us of the use of lead - as cosmetics, ballistics, sarcophagipipes, jewelry, curse tablets, utensils and cooking pots, and, of course sapa and defrutum wine boiled down in lead pots - but what almost all stories about the use of lead in ancient Rome miss is the osteological evidence.
Metabolic disorders can be caused by a lack of nutrients - a lack of vitamin C gives you scurvyand a lack of vitamin D gives you rickets - but they can also be caused by an abundance of something, like too much fluoridetoo much mercurytoo much arsenicor too much lead.
This element is found in the environment naturally, so we do expect to find some amount of lead in the skeleton of every person, ancient or modern.
But, because of the physical properties of lead - it can be made into hard, sharp things - people have been using it for millennia and thus have been exposed to heavy metal toxicity for millennia as well. Lead can actually mimic other metals that are essential to biological functioning.
The most damaging enzymatic reaction that lead affects is the production of hemoglobinor red blood cell production, which can cause anemia. So doctors in modern times often find anemia in a person with lead poisoning. Most of it gets deposited in the bones and teeth.
In modern society, lead poisoning is diagnosed through a blood test to determine the level of lead in the body. As far as I know, the first and only study to actually measure levels of lead in skeletons from Rome is the one that involved my samples from the two cemeteries of Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco 1st-3rd c AD.
Some of the data from that article is below. The Romans are there in the middle. What you can see is that there are fairly low levels of lead in the pre-Roman periods in Britain Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and the levels are lower in the post-fall of the Roman Empire after 5th c AD. So what do those numbers mean on a scale of Normal to Lead Poisoned?
In fact, this level is two times higher than the level the WHO considers "very severe lead poisoning. Raw data from Montgomery et al. The chart also shows the median human lead concentrations that I calculated for these groups.
You can see a spike during the Roman period, and then median values drop in Britain. The post-Roman data can be broken down further into just post-Roman rule 5th-7th c AD, with a median of 0. The later Medieval period therefore shows an even greater use of lead than Imperial Rome, at least for these samples.
Adverse effects of excess lead Credit: That is, if the people buried at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco were living in an industrial area or were metalworkers, then they were more at risk for high levels of lead than were people not living in those areas and not doing those jobs.An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers.
DIR Atlas AUGUSTUS (31 B.C. - 14 A.D.) [Additional entry on this emperor's life is available in DIR Archives]. Garrett G. Fagan Pennsylvania State University. Introduction Augustus is arguably the single most important figure in Roman history. "This latest volume from Professor Greg Woolf is a marvelous synthesis of the scholarship of, primarily, the last four decades on Rome's imperial successes and failures, rendered in an approachable and affable style of writing that is imbued throughout with useful anecdotes, quotes from primary sources, and summaries of the major scholarly positions.
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