Environmental pollution as far back as antiquity: Finds in the ancient city of Jerash provide evidence of heavy metal contamination

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Archaeologists and geologists from the Universities of Münster, Aarhus, St. Andr

Archaeologists and geologists from the Universities of Münster, Aarhus, St. Andrews and Stirling have now discovered that, over the centuries, numerous small quantities of contaminants have collected in the soil around medium-sized towns in the ancient world. © Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project

Current research shows that environmental pollution is a phenomenon found not only in modern times. Even in ancient times people suffered from lead poisoning. The Romans widely used this heavy metal as a material for their water pipes and sometimes even for sweetening wine. There is a fair amount of evidence for the extent and the influence of this contamination, and its impact on the global atmosphere can be tracked on the basis of Arctic ice core analyses. It has also been observed in European moors. Archaeologists and geologists from the Universities of Münster, Aarhus, St. Andrews and Stirling have now discovered that, over the centuries, numerous small quantities of contaminants have collected in the soil around medium-sized towns in the ancient world.

In other words, the image of smoke pouring out of factory chimneys during the Industrial Revolution is only part of the pollution story. In contrast to frequent assumptions, contamination on an industrial scale was a common occurrence as long ago as antiquity, for example as a result of the centralized mining of lead and silver. Wherever people pursued the large-scale use of natural resources - for building purposes, agriculture, and the production of food or objects - this was often accompanied by environmental pollution. Forests were cleared, wastewater was discharged into rivers, the smoke from hearth fires clouded the air over the city, and the mining of metals released toxic substances. Although the destruction of the environment was not yet happening on the same global scale as today, contaminated soil and drinking water has made people ill at all times. Warnings which have survived, for example in inscriptions, demonstrate that there was certainly an awareness of the dangerous consequences for people’s health.

"What’s new today," says Prof. Achim Lichtenberger from the Institute of Classical and Christian Archaeology at the University of Münster, "is that, in addition to the obvious suspects, much smaller causes of contamination are being investigated, for example craftsmen’s work and everyday activities." At the local level, the finds from the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods confirm what was long suspected with regard to the era - that the idea that "every little bit helps" was just as true then.

Since 2011 a German/Danish team working within the "Jerash Northwest Quarter Project" - led by Achim Lichtenberger from Münster and Prof. Rubina Raja from Aarhus - has been carrying out research in the antique city of Jerash in what is now Jordan. Again and again, the researchers were surprised at the contamination of the soil with heavy metals. "These factors were ignored in previous contamination studies," says Dr. Genevieve Holdridge from Aarhus. She is the lead author of a new international study on the finds, and in this context she speaks of "archaeological proof". In combination with scientific analyses, an unexpected pattern was revealed in the antique city, its hinterland and, downstream, in the river valley in the region being investigated.

"It was very seldom that we discovered any indications of lead pipes in Jerash or of any metalworking industry or mining," says Lichtenberger. Nevertheless, the soil had been continuously contaminated over the centuries, to the extent that this must have had unsuspected consequences for the health of later residents in the region. In the view of the authors of the study, it was everyday activities in manufacturing and in the use of metallic objects that were responsible for the high level of heavy metal contamination. It was definitely not individual large-scale manufacturers who were responsible for the environmental pollution, but numerous small-scale activities resulting from high population density and urbanization.

"The case of Jerash provides valuable lessons for sustainability in present-day cities," say the authors of the study, which was published in June in the international online journal "PLOS ONE" of the Public Library of Science. "The contamination pathways reflect long-term man-made environmental pollution at a local and a regional level since Roman times," the study summarizes.

In antiquity, there were numerous cities of the size of Jerash - and larger. "The everyday use, and re-use, in towns and cities of sources of heavy metals therefore need to be taken into account in future when trying to understand the historical distribution of contaminants at a global level."

This article was first published in the University newspaper wissen leben No. 4, 16 June 2021.

Brigitte Heeke

Translation: Ken Ashton

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