Oxford University scientists have played a key role in a collaboration studying ice sheets in Greenland, which has shed light on pollution produced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. 

The results featured in PNAS offer new insights into how European civilisations and their economies developed over time – finding links between levels of lead pollution and significant historical events, such as plagues, wars and imperial expansion.

Thousands of years ago, during the height of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, lead emissions from sources such as the mining and smelting of lead-silver ores in Europe drifted with the winds over the ocean to Greenland – a distance of more than 2800 miles (4600 km) – and settled onto the ice. Year after year, as fallen snow added layers to the ice sheet, lead emissions were captured along with dust and other airborne particles, and became part of the ice-core record that scientists use today to learn about conditions of the past.

A team of interdisciplinary scientists, historians and economists from Oxford’s School of Archaeology, the Desert Research Institute (DRI), Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) and the University of Copenhagen, used ice samples from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) pooled their expertise to measure, date and analyse European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800.

Using detailed ice-core chronology, the research team looked for linkages between lead emissions and historic change.

Their results show that lead pollution emissions began to rise as early as 900 BC, as Phoenicians expanded their trading routes into the western Mediterranean. These emissions accelerated during a period of increased mining activity by the Carthaginians and Romans primarily in the Iberian Peninsula, and peaked under the Roman Empire.

The team’s extensive measurements provide a different picture of ancient economic activity than previous research had provided. Some historians, for example, had argued that the sparse Greenland lead record provided evidence of better economic performance during the Roman Republic than during the Roman Empire. However, according to the findings of this study, the highest sustained levels of lead pollution emissions coincided with the height of the Roman Empire during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, a period of economic prosperity known as the Pax Romana. The record also shows that lead emissions were very low during the last 80 years of the Roman Republic, a period known as the Crisis of the Roman Republic.

Andrew Wilson, co-author and Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford, said: ‘The nearly four-fold higher lead emissions during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire compared to the last decades of the Roman Republic indicate substantial economic growth under Imperial rule.’

‘Our record of sub-annually resolved, accurately dated measurements in the ice core starts in 1100 BC during the late Iron Age and extends through antiquity and late antiquity to the early Middle Ages in Europe – a period that included the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations,’ adds the study’s lead author Joe McConnell, Ph.D., Research Professor of Hydrology at DRI. ‘We found that lead pollution in Greenland very closely tracked known plagues, wars, social unrest and imperial expansions during European antiquity.’

The team used state-of-the-art atmospheric transport model simulations to determine the scale of emissions released from analysing the lead pollution levels observed in the Greenland ice.

Co-author Andreas Stohl, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at NILU, said: ‘We believe this is the first time such detailed modeling has been used to interpret an ice-core record of human-made pollution and identify the most likely source region of the pollution.’

Most of the lead emissions from this time period are believed to have been linked to the production of silver, which was a key component of currency.

‘Because most of the emissions during these periods resulted from mining and smelting of lead-silver ores, lead emissions can be seen as a proxy or indicator of overall economic activity,’ McConnell explained.
The team also found that lead emissions rose and fell along with wars and political instability, particularly during the Roman Republic, and took sharp dives when two major plagues struck the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The first, called the Antonine Plague, was probably smallpox. The second, called the Plague of Cyprian, struck during a period of political instability called the third-century crisis.

‘The great Antonine Plague struck the Roman Empire in AD 165 and lasted for 15 years. The high lead emissions of the Pax Romana ended exactly at that time and didn’t recover until the early Middle Ages more than 500 years later,’ Professor Wilson explained.