Lead and the Roman water system

Half a century after lead poisoning was proposed as the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, a wave of publications to refute this idea put an end to this theory. Although lead is no longer considered the main culprit in the decline of Roman civilization, its presence in the Roman water distribution system water is still worthy of consideration as a major public health problem. The Archaeology of Portus course will introduce some of the methods employed in this research.

By measuring the isotopic composition of the lead in the sediments of the docks of the port of Imperial Rome (Portus) and the Tiber, a new study has shown that the piped water of ancient Rome contained up to 100 times more lead than the local water sources. Moreover, fluctuations in the isotopic signal of the lead in the sedimentary deposits studied indicate that they are closely linked to major historical events that affected Rome and its water distribution systems in late antiquity.

This research was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers in Lyon involving the Laboratoire d’Environnement, Ville, Société (EVS, CNRS/Lyon2/Lyon3/UJM/INSA de Lyon/ENS de Lyon/ENTPE), the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon Terre, Planète, Environnement (ENS de Lyon /Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1/CNRS) and the Laboratoire Archéorient (CNRS/Université Lumière Lyon 2) of the Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée – Jean Pouilloux. This study was published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in April 2014.

Research paper: http://www.pnas.org/content/111/18/6594.abstract

  1. Hugo Delile
  2. Janne Blichert-Toft
  3. Jean-Philippe Goiran
  4. Simon Keay
  5. Francis Albarède

Guardian link: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/apr/21/ancient-rome-tap-water-contaminated-lead-researchers

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