The use of lead was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire, including material for water pipes, eating vessels, medicine, and even as a sweetener for wine. The toxicity of lead is well established today, resulting in long-term psychological and neurological deficits as well as metabolic diseases. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead, and it is likely that the widespread use of this deadly metal among Roman populations led to a range of adverse health effects. Indeed, lead poisoning has even been implicated in the downfall of the Roman Empire. This research examines, for the first time, the direct effect of lead poisoning on the inhabitants of the Empire. It explores whether the dramatic increase in lead during this period contributed to the failure to thrive evident within the skeletal remains of Roman children. Lead concentration and paleopathological analyses were used to explore the association between lead burdens and health during the Roman period. This study includes 173 individuals (66 adults and 107 non-adults) from five sites, AD 1st–4th centuries, located throughout the Roman Empire. Results show a negative correlation between age-at-death and core tooth enamel lead concentrations. Furthermore, higher lead concentrations were observed in children with skeletal evidence of metabolic disease than those without. This study provides the first bioarcheological evidence that lead poisoning was a contributing factor to the high infant mortality and childhood morbidity rates seen within the Roman world.
Moore, J., Filipek, K., Kalenderian, V., Gowland, R., Hamilton, E., Evans, J., & Montgomery, J. (2021). Death Metal: Evidence for the impact of lead poisoning on childhood health within the Roman Empire. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 31(5), 846-856. https://doi.org/10.1002/oa.3001