Posted by: bluesyemre | May 21, 2018

Rise and fall of Roman Empire exposed in Greenland ice samples


Lead pollution from the Roman Empire fell on Greenland—where it was preserved in layers of ice. LOUIELEA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Modern people aren’t the only ones who’ve polluted the atmosphere. Two thousand years ago, the Romans smelted precious ores in clay furnaces, extracting silver and belching lead into the sky. Some of that lead settled on Greenland’s ice cap and mixed in with ever-accumulating layers of ice. Now, scientists studying annual deposits of those ice layers have found that spikes and dips in lead pollution during the Roman era mirror the timing of many historical events, including wars fought by Julius Caesar.

The level of detail is “astounding,” says Dennis Kehoe, a scholar of Roman economic history and law at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, who wasn’t involved in the work. What really impressed him was how closely the lead pollution numbers tracked what ancient historians know about the expansion and collapse of the Roman economy—a system built on silver coinage known as denarius. “It’s really the rise and fall of a monetary system based on silver,” he says. “Prices were reckoned in silver, so they had to have silver.”

Scientists have known about the Roman-era spike in lead pollution since the 1990s. Back then, researchers measured lead levels at a few places along the length of cores extracted from Greenland’s ice cap—with each measurement representing a 2-year period. Later studies confirmed the same pattern in soil samples from peat bogs in Spain, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands. But those studies couldn’t show how lead pollution changed year by year.

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