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

In the Roman world, lead was a valuable and abundant commodity with many uses that are described in ancient written sources and through the recovery of artefacts from archaeological sites. The toxicity of lead has led to sensational claims by modern authors that lead poisoning caused the fall of the Roman Empire through its ubiquitous use in aqueducts, water pipes, household implements, and medicine. However, the actual production, use, and physical effects of this material on human health have not been widely studied for the Roman period, and 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.

The Deadly Lead project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Development Programme, aims to rectify this situation. This is the first study of its kind that investigates 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 and dying here. We know exactly where the people at Vagnari lived and where some of them worked with this toxic material which survives not only in artefacts, but also as lead droplets and scrap from the smelting process; furthermore, the workers in lead and those living near them were buried in the village cemetery where we can examine their skeletal remains. The people of Vagnari were almost certainly of varying social status, from slaves to free-born, and from local workers to immigrant labourers and tenants, and this will give us important insight into lead production and exposure among different tiers of Roman society.

This research fosters new synergies and develops novel research interactions between archaeology, biological anthropology, history, geochemistry, and medical science. 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.

The Principal Investigator is Tracy Prowse (Anthropology, McMaster University, Canada), an expert on the study of Roman skeletal material for an understanding of 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 the lead and stable isotope data on mobility. The CoPI is Maureen Carroll (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), an expert on Roman death, burial, and commemoration, particularly of infants and children. Her responsibility is to ascertain 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.

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

Lead Scrap