A history of lead

Great events are known to cast their shadows, even if sometimes they cast them behind. Whether the Emperor Nero was really the one who burned Rome in 64 A.D. or whether it burned due to carelessness is difficult to determine today, but it is clear that this event had consequences. Among others it resulted in enormous building activities.

The emperor’s new palace, the Domus Aurea, took up a huge space and a lake was built where the Colosseum stands today.

An enormous amount of building material was needed for this great (and much resented) work, including lead for the water pipes.

The Romans were great lovers of this metal, the poisonousness of which they underestimated.

Water pipes, pots, drinking vessels – everything was made of lead and lead was even mixed into the wine to sweeten it. There is a theory that the high consumption of lead led to the Roman elite’s lack of fertility and their high adoption rate. Malicious tongues even claimed that Emperor Caligula had gone insane because of the high consumption of that metal.

Underwater archaeology has interesting things to contribute to this debate of the Roman need for and consumption of lead.

Thus, archaeologists frequently find lead pipes from Roman times, on land and under water. They also measured the Pb isotope composition of sediments from the Tiber River and the Trajan port and found that “tab water” from ancient Rome contained 100 times more lead than local spring waters.

Underwater archaeologists even discovered where the lead of Rome came from.

Lead from the Bou Ferrer Shipwreck, Spain

Research at the Bou Ferrer wreck in Spain thus uncovered a cargo of lead that was to be taken to Rome by a huge transport ship carrying 230 tons of cargo, mainly amphorae with fish sauce called garum. Two coins, a sestertium and a dupondio, which were found, proved that the shipwreck occured in the last years of the reign of Emperor Nero, between 64 and 68 AD. In addition to the coins, a lead ingot was found with a counter-stamp on which the acronym IMP GER AVG (Imperator Germanicus Augustus) was impressed, referring to an emperor of the Julius Claudian dynasty such as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius or Nero (all of whom descended from Germanicus). A countersign NER.CA (Neronis Curator Aquarum) was also discovered, which referred to the person in charge of the water system of the city of Rome, a senator designated by the emperor who was responsible for the maintenance of the city’s aqueducts and canal system.

The Bou Ferrer Wreck, Spain

So it seems, this senator sent a high-ranking delegate, custodian of the imperial seals, to carry out the purchase and inspection of lead from the Sierra Morena, which was stored in the port of Gades (Cádiz). This shows that the ship found under water was sent out to buy a significant quantity of lead for the reconstruction and water pipes of the burnt down Rome … and was shipwrecked en route just right to tell us this story.

U.C. Ringuer

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