How Lead Poisoning Crippled the Roman Empire

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield have been investigating exactly how lead poisoning affected the overall human health of the Roman Empire.

This exciting new research is being led by two people. The first is University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology Professor Maureen Carroll and the second is Dr Tracy Prowse who comes from McMaster University in Canada. They are the first to study and investigate the production of lead and also its use within the Roman Empire, and they are evaluating archaeological as well as skeletal evidence at a site within Roman Italy.

Lead was Very Abundant in Ancient Rome

We are finding that inside the ancient Roman world, we find that lead was an abundant commodity and was considered to be very valuable. In fact, it had lots of uses that were specifically outlined in ancient written sources as well as through the artefacts that were obtained at Roman archaeological sites.

Because of the horrific toxicity found in lead, this has caused modern authors to make some pretty sensational claims about how lead poisoning helped cause the Roman Empire to fall because of its heavy use in water pipes, aqueducts, household items, and even medicine.

Evaluation of Remains Where Lead were Heavily Used

Amazingly, we find that the true production, it uses, and the physical impact of this metal on public health in ancient Rome has actually not been studied before. Until this study came along, there had been no previous evaluations on the remains of those who were known to be heavily exposed to lead. There is strong archaeological evidence for lead use and production at the site where those people had worked and lived.

This new international team is now investigating all this archaeological evidence pertaining to lead production and its use at a rural Roman estate located in Vagnari, Italy. They are studying the physical remains of those Romans that had been exposed to lead on a routine basis.

The research of Professor Maureen Carroll had revealed previously that several Roman Imperial leaders had produced wine on a huge scale during their personal lives, has stated: “Our project focuses on the site of a rural estate which Roman emperors used as a source of revenue through agriculture and industry. Thanks to our previous research, we have the advantage of knowing exactly where people lived on the site and where some of them worked with toxic lead on a regular basis. These people were buried in the village cemetery.”

“The village’s inhabitants almost certainly were of varying social status, from slaves to free-born, and from local workers to immigrant labourers and tenants, so this research will give us an important insight into lead production and exposure among different tiers of Roman society.”

Dr Prowse also stated: “This project integrates research expertise from various disciplines to explore the entire picture of lead production and consumption at a rural Roman estate.

“It gives us new insights ranging from the physical context of manufacturing in the estate’s village, the procurement and processing of ores, to the physiological effects of lead production on men, women and children living and dying in the area. It will also give us a new understanding of the long-term consequences of lead in the environment and the associated risks to human health.”

Each year, Archaeology students who study at the University of Sheffield take part in excavation and research activities at Vagnari. This project provides graduate students and young scholars with the opportunity to train and learn about advanced scientific techniques, data gathering, as well as scholarly discourse.