In DepthArchaeology

Lead pollution tracks the rise and fall of medieval kings

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Science  03 Apr 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6486, pp. 19-20
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6486.19

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Summary

In England's Peak District, the picturesque village of Castleton nestles at the foot of a limestone outcrop crowned by a medieval castle. Today, hikers flock to the natural beauty of this region, home to the United Kingdom's first national park. But 800 years ago, the wild moors and wooded gorges were "covered in toxic lead pollution," says archaeologist Chris Loveluck of the University of Nottingham. Here, farmers mined and smelted so much lead that it left toxic traces in their bodies—and winds blew lead dust onto a glacier 1500 kilometers away in the Swiss Alps. Loveluck and his colleagues say the glacier preserves a detailed record of medieval lead production, especially when analyzed with a new method that can track deposition over a few weeks or even days. As they report in a study published this week in Antiquity, lead spiked when kings took power, minted silver coins, and built cathedrals and castles. Levels plunged when plagues, wars, or other crises slowed mining and the air cleared.

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