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Deadly Lead?

An Interdisciplinary Study of Lead Production, Lead Exposure, and Health on an Imperial Roman Estate in Italy

Understanding the history of lead production and contamination

In the Roman world, lead was a valuable and abundant commodity with many uses that are described in ancient written sources and understood through the recovery of artefacts from archaeological sites. The toxicity of lead has led to sensational claims that lead poisoning caused the fall of the Roman Empire through its ubiquitous use in aqueducts, water pipes, household implements, and medicine. However, there has been no study of the remains of individuals who are known to have been regularly exposed to lead, as indicated by archaeological evidence for lead production and lead use on the site where they once lived and worked.

What are the long-term consequences of lead in the environment?

The SSHRC-sponsored Deadly Lead project will investigate lead production and exposure among ordinary Romans using excavated artefactual and skeletal material from the Roman rural estate at Vagnari in southern Italy (1st to 4th centuries CE). The research question to be investigated is if, and to what extent, the ancient inhabitants at Vagnari were exposed to lead and lead toxicity through industrial activities and daily living at this site. Further, where did this lead come from and what was it used for? By answering these questions, this study will explore the entire picture of lead production and consumption at Vagnari, ranging from the physical context of manufacturing in the estate village, and the procurement and processing of ores, to the physiological effects of this type of industrial production on the men, women, and children living at the site.  The results will be of relevance to those who seek to understand this history of lead production, lead contamination, the long-term consequences of lead in the environment, and the associated risks to human health.

photo of Tracy Prowse

Tracy Prowse

Ph.D., Anthropology, McMaster University2001

(she/her); Associate Professor; Associate Dean Academic, Faculty of Social Sciences

Principal Investigator, Dr. Tracy Prowse

Dr. Tracy Prowse (Anthropology) is the Principal Investigator, and is an expert on the study of Roman skeletal material to understand diet, health, and mobility in the past. She is investigating the evidence at Vagnari for lead exposure through the quantification of lead found in teeth formed in childhood, while also compiling lead and stable isotope data on mobility. The Co-PI is Dr. Maureen Carroll (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), an expert on Roman death, burial, and commemoration, particularly of infants and children. Her contribution to this project is to investigate the function of the lead artefacts from Vagnari and to conduct a study of Roman medical texts pertaining to the health risks of the metal-working industries.

Collaborating for a Brighter World

Research collaborators on this project are: Dr, Jane Evans, an isotope geochemist and the head of the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (NIGL) at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, UK, who will conduct biochemical analysis of the lead artefacts from Vagnari to determine the origins of lead ores and their composition; and Dr. Michael Inskip, Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences program, McMaster University, who is an expert in the analysis of lead isotopes in modern biological tissues.