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Lead pipes from a Roman bath Credit: We have plenty of textual and archaeological sources that inform us of the use of lead - as cosmetics, ballistics, sarcophagipipes, jewelry, curse tablets, utensils and cooking pots, and, of course sapa and defrutum wine boiled down in lead pots - but what almost all stories about the use of lead in ancient Rome miss is the osteological evidence.
But let's start with some contemporary medical knowledge.
Metabolic disorders can be caused by a lack of nutrients - a lack of vitamin C gives you scurvyand a lack of vitamin D gives you rickets - but they can also be caused by an abundance of something, like too much fluoridetoo much mercurytoo much arsenicor too much lead.
Lead is a heavy metal, one that isn't needed by the human body, unlike vitamins C or D. This element is found in the environment naturally, so we do expect to find some amount of lead in the skeleton of every person, ancient or modern. But, because of the physical properties of lead - it can be made into hard, sharp things - people have been using it for millennia and thus have been exposed to heavy metal toxicity for millennia as well.
The dangers of lead actually weren't well known until the second half of the 20th century, which was when lead was taken out of things like paint and gasoline. The main problem with lead - the reason that it's toxic - is that it interferes with normal enzyme reactions within the human body.
Lead can actually mimic other metals that are essential to biological functioning. But since lead doesn't work the same way as those metals, the enzymatic reactions that depend on things like calcium, iron, and zinc are disrupted.
The most damaging enzymatic reaction that lead affects is the production of hemoglobinor red blood cell production, which can cause anemia. So doctors in modern times often find anemia in a person with lead poisoning.
Lead is also particularly problematic because it stays in the body for a very long time once it's absorbed, inhaled, or ingested.
Most of it gets deposited in the bones and teeth. Lead can be removed from the body, excreted through the kidneys and urine, but it's a very slow process without modern chelation therapy. In modern society, lead poisoning is diagnosed through a blood test to determine the level of lead in the body.
We don't have blood in ancient remains, of course, so we have to investigate lead through the levels we can measure in bone and enamel. As far as I know, the first and only study to actually measure levels of lead in skeletons from Rome is the one that involved my samples from the two cemeteries of Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco 1st-3rd c AD.
Some of the data from that article is below. The Romans are there in the middle. What you can see is that there are fairly low levels of lead in the pre-Roman periods in Britain Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and the levels are lower in the post-fall of the Roman Empire after 5th c AD.
So what do those numbers mean on a scale of Normal to Lead Poisoned?
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