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Keywords:

  • Roman;
  • Israel;
  • shipwreck;
  • lead;
  • environment;
  • pollution

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Underwater surveys along the Israeli coast have yielded numerous lead artefacts recovered from Roman shipwrecks, found due to sand shortage caused by nature and man. Unique site-formation processes resulted in intact and preserved assemblages of lead artefacts unaffected by prior salvage. These included hull sheathing, anchors, fishing gear, cooking equipment and containers. Most lead was in objects intended only for nautical use. The finds indicate that people on board ships were exposed to more lead than the general Roman population. Thus the Roman ship was a mobile source of lead pollution contaminating people and the marine environment.

© 2007 The Authors

Lead is a versatile metal which is easily extracted and worked. It resists corrosion and forms useful artefacts and compounds, and therefore was widely used in antiquity (Nriagu, 1983). Numerous lead artefacts have been recovered along the coast of Israel from Roman wrecks dating to the Late Republic and the Empire (Galili et al., 1993; Galili and Shavit, 1994; Kingsley and Raveh, 1996; Galili et al., 2002a; Galili and Rosen, in press) (Fig. 1). Lead objects similar to those recovered in Israel have been reported from Roman shipwrecks elsewhere in the Mediterranean (Parker, 1992, passim). Therefore the distribution of lead artefacts in Israeli wrecks probably represents their distribution in Roman ships in general.

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Figure 1. Locations of selected Roman shipwrecks along the Israeli coast. (E. Galili)

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Study of the lead artefacts recovered from Israeli wreck-sites increases our knowledge of the use of lead in general and in Roman ships in particular. It also has relevance to archaeologists studying the Roman period and thus enables an evaluation of the role of lead in Roman society. The following article presents the different kinds of lead artefacts recovered from the Israeli wrecks, evaluates their role and importance on board ship relative to the role of lead artefacts on land, and discusses the possible effect of lead on the sailors and their environment.

The finds

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The quantity and diversity of lead artefacts recovered from Israeli shipwrecks indicates that lead was widely distributed on these ships (Fig. 2). The greater portion of the lead in many of these ships was in the form of sheathing covering hulls from the keel up to the waterline (Kahanov, 1999) (Fig. 2.1). Recoveries of rolled spare lead sheathing and finds of lead patches holed by nails indicate that hull parts and deck structures were mended by such lead patches, probably by the crew (Fig. 3A and B) (Galili et al., in press). Seams in the deck and hull were often sealed by hammering in lead strips sealed by putty (Galili et al., in press). Lead parts of bilge pumps such as collecting-boxes, pipes and joints (Figs 2.5 and 3C) have been found in Israeli waters and elsewhere in the Mediterranean (Beltrame and Gaddi, 2005). Crossed rings have been recovered on several Roman wrecks off the Israeli coast (Oleson, 1988). These may have been used as gasket-holders for bilge-pumps (Galili et al., in press).

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Figure 2. Schematic distribution of lead artefacts on a Roman ship. (E. Galili)

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Figure 3. Hull parts: A, rolls of spare lead sheathing; B, lead patches; C, bilge-pump parts (collecting box, lead pipes). (E. Galili)

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Rudder-oars and rowing-oars carried by Roman ships were often balanced by lead weights (Friedman et al., 2002) (Fig. 2.2). The composite Roman anchor was formed of a wooden shank and wooden arms, joined by a lead assembly-piece, and a massive lead stock. Ships often carried more than one anchor (Figs 2.3 and 4) (Kapitän, 1973). Sounding-lead weights were carried to estimate depths and sea-bed nature (Figs 2.9 and 5) (Oleson, 1994a; Oleson, 2000). Small lead rings, some used in sail brails and others in fishing gear, were found on many shipwrecks off the Israeli coast (Galili et al., 2002b; Kingsley and Raveh, 1996) (Fig. 2.4). Numerous fishing-gear sinkers made of lead (Galili et al., 2002b) as well as large lead rings (15–40 cm diameter) for salvaging fishing gear were often recovered from Israeli wrecks (Fig. 2.10–11). Such artefacts have also been recovered from other Mediterranean wrecks (Gianfrotta and Pomey, 1980: 285–92).

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Figure 4. Lead parts of composite wood-lead anchors: A, assembly pieces; B, removable stock; C, fixed stocks. (E. Galili)

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Figure 5. Lead sounding-weights. (E. Galili)

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Ship's galleys used lead braziers (Figs 2.7 and 6A), probably the only devices on board for cooking (Galili and Sharvit, 1999). Lead containers for handling and storing liquids, as well as lead utensils such as cooking-pots and kitchenware, also used on land, have been recovered from some wrecks (Figs 2.6, 2.8, 6B, 6C). Additionally, because of the intensive use of lead, lead cargo was often carried in the form of ingots which have been recovered from some wrecks (Kingsley and Raveh, 1996; Galili and Sharvit, 2000).

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Figure 6. Food and water handling equipment: A, lead braziers; B, lead containers; C, lead cooking-pots. (E. Galili)

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Site formation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The Mediterranean coast of Israel is characterized by shallow sandy shores, few natural shelters and frequent seasonal storms (Hydrographer of the Navy, 1988: 19–36). Vessels caught in a storm drifted ashore and wrecked in the breaker-zone. Post-depositional processes at the wreck-sites acted as an ‘extracting filter’, discriminating between light objects such as hull timbers, rigging, and buoyant cargo which disintegrated or drifted ashore to be salvaged, and heavy metallic artefacts which were buried in the local sand. The buried artefacts were protected from destruction and salvage, survived and accumulated as assemblages of intact metal artefacts (Frost, 1962; Muckelroy, 1975; Ward et al., 1999a; Ward et al., 1999b).

In the last 50 years changing coastal sedimentation patterns caused by natural processes combined with human activities (such as sand-quarrying and the construction of marine structures) has resulted in a shortage of sand and the exposure of ancient wreck-sites. Easy access enabled the recovery of numerous newly-exposed and well-preserved metal artefacts. These phenomena combined with intensified underwater archaeological exploration resulted in the discovery of numerous wreck-sites (Galili et al., 2002a).

Lead artefacts

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

All the lead recovered from the residential areas of a number of typical local rural sites never amounted to more than 5–10 kg per site. Such a site could have been inhabited by at most 200−300 souls (Dar, 1999; Hirschfeld, 2000; Dar, 2002). However, when comparing the quantities of lead artefacts recovered from shipwrecks off the Israeli coast to these recovered from land sites, the differences between site-formation and post-depositional processes must be considered. On land metal salvaging and recycling was common, while metal artefacts carried by wrecked ships were preserved and were not accessible for salvage. This may create a discriminative effect favouring the survival of artefacts from shipwrecks. The pre-wreckage inventories of lead artefacts are fully represented in shipwrecks. However inventories of lead artefacts from land sites probably underestimate the true situation in the past. Consequently a strict quantitative comparison of the two groups of lead artefacts may be misleading. Therefore the comparison of exposure to lead in the general Roman population to that of Roman seamen will be preceded by listing the functional diversity of the artefacts used by the two groups. It will be demonstrated that the lead artefacts recovered from shipwrecks, and specifically intended for nautical uses, were more diversified than artefacts recovered from wrecks and intended also for non-nautical uses.

Lead artefacts which could have been used both on land and at sea are: dining utensils, containers for holding, heating and preserving liquids, and lead pipes and tubing. Lead dining utensils would have been the most common examples of such use. However the inherent fragility of ceramic utensils tended to decrease their use by ever-shaking water-craft. Lead pipes and tubing have often been recovered from terrestrial archaeological sites in Israel but ceramic substitutes were used in many cases. No pumping systems employing ceramic pipes have been recovered from shipwrecks. Large containers of lead have been rarely recovered from land sites and generally either stone-built or ceramic equivalents were used. On land either stone-built or ceramic, fixed or portable, braziers or ovens were used and there was no reason to use the obviously-more-expensive lead equivalents recovered so far solely from wrecks.

The massive lead items recovered from wrecks—sheathing, anchors, the bilge-pump system and sounding-leads, as well as lead braziers, seaming seals, and fishing-gear sinkers, were unique to the ship and usually are not found in non-nautical circumstances. The ‘specific lead load’ on seamen was added to the ‘normal lead load’ of the period, imposed by food, drink, and utensils. Judging by the high amounts of lead used in specific nautical artefacts and the close proximity of sailors to exposed lead for extended periods, the lead load to which seafarers were exposed must have been significantly larger than the lead load to which local subsistence farmers and non-lead-working terrestrial populations were subjected.

Lead poisoning

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The possible environmental and health risks inherent in industrial and technological developments are traditionally illustrated by the alleged damaging effect of lead on the population of ancient Rome. It is perhaps the oldest studied case of such danger but its severity is still debated (Nriagu, 1983; Scarborough, 1984). Lead poisoning can be, in some societies at given times, a major public-health problem. Intake of environmental lead systematically poisons individuals and reduces physical and mental performances of populations, thus causing suffering and economic losses (Needleman, 2004). Lead poisoning is historically associated with the adoption of new technologies which apply the unique properties of lead to contemporary socio-industrial needs: Roman water-conveyance, medieval glazing, renaissance paints, and leaded gasoline and radiation shields in the 20th century.

Quantities of lead found in soil and ice-cores from the northern hemisphere indicate a rise in the amount of atmospheric lead starting at about the 1st century BC and staying high during the late Roman Republic and the Empire. This rise was associated with the technological activities of the Roman Empire (Hong et al., 1994; Rosman et al., 1997; Shotyk et al., 1998; Weiss et al., 1999). Lead traces in these cores show average ‘high’ lead content in the atmosphere and in contemporary human environments in general but do not tell about lead-use distribution within specific Roman population groups. Obviously lead workers were highly exposed to it (Zenz et al., 1994). It was implied that wine-drinkers were poisoned by lead equipment used in wineries (Nriagu, 1983). This implication has been only conditionally accepted (Scarborough, 1984). It has been claimed that Roman city-dwellers were endangered by water conducted in lead pipes (Hodge, 1981; Nriagu, 1983). However, wine-drinking and city-living characterized large and heterogeneous segments of the Roman society and cannot mark the ‘risk level’ of specific populations more exposed to lead than others. To advance research on the effects of lead on Roman civilization there is a need to identify such ‘at risk’ populations.

As listed above, lead was liable to be everywhere on ships. It was present in the hull, tackle, fishing gear, cargo, and equipment associated with crew welfare. The weight of lead carried by Roman ships sailing on the Israeli coast can be approximated by presenting a virtual inventory of lead artefacts that could have been present on an imaginary average general-purpose coaster, 15–18 m total length, 5–6 m wide and 2–2.5 m deep (Throckmorton, 1972: 65–86; Laszlo and Woodman, 1999: 25–36) (Table l) (Fig. 2). Theoretically such a hypothetical ship, possibly sailed by a crew of 4–5 seamen, could have habitually contained roughly about 380–530 kg of lead, of which about 185–285 kg were exposed on board; the rest was below the waterline.

Table 1. Estimated weight of lead carried by a Roman ship on the Israeli Coast
ItemWeight (kg)Number of itemsTotal weight (kg)
Sheathing (2 mm thick.)∼200–2501∼200–250
Deck seam seals∼300g/seam∼5–20 pieces∼5–10
Bilge-pump system1∼30–50
Anchors∼50–752∼100–150
Sounding-leads∼7–102∼15–20
Brazier∼20–251∼20–25
Fishing-gear sinkers5–6 kg. per cast net1–5∼5–20
0.01–0.05 per hook? 
Water-tank etc.∼10
Total385–535 kg

The danger of lead is demonstrated by the present US standards that demand registration by facilities using more than 100 lb (∼50 kg) yearly or having articles emitting more than 0.5 lb (∼228 g) of lead or its compounds per year. These standards also demand less than 1 mg lead per cm2 of wall paint (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2001). The practically-insoluble patina formed on exposed non-working lead surfaces by lead oxides and carbonates decreases lead solubility and toxicity. In pipes carrying hard water travertine deposits act similarly. But most lead artefacts on board Roman ships were constantly worked and consequently remained unprotected by patina. Ship-related artefacts such as bilge-pumps, anchors, sounding-leads, brail-rings and fishing gear were constantly abraded. Lead deck-seams, when used, were constantly trodden on. Hull sheathing was periodically scraped to prevent fouling and, when damaged, was patched by the crew. These artefacts shed and spread soluble lead compounds and lead particles. Seamen worked in the sun, half-naked, unshod and barehanded, and such exposure increases lead absorption (Filippelli et al., 2005). Food and drink were heated on lead braziers and sometimes served in lead utensils which were frequently heated, cooled, touched and scraped, practices that induce high oral lead intake (Eisenberg et al., 1985).

Sailing then was slow (Casson, 1971: 270–99). Written sources indicate that sailors lived aboard for extended periods and ships sheltered for long times in desolated places having little food and water (Synesius, Epi. 5, PG, LXVI, cols. 1328 ff.; Semple, 1932: 580). This caused lengthy exposure of seamen to lead, in challenging environments in a non-optimal nutritional situation. Somewhat similar circumstances allegedly contributed to the decimation of the Franklin polar expedition in the 19th century (Beattie and Geiger, 1987; Beattie et al., 1990; Keenleyside et al., 1996; Bayliss, 2002).

In harbours, anchorages and shelters, ships were moored and maintained by plumbing and soldering, thus spreading lead about. Shipwrecks show much foundering in Israeli anchorages and ports such as Caesarea, Dor and Akko (Oleson, 1994b; Kingsley and Raveh, 1996; Slayman, 1999). Archaeological recoveries of lead objects from such places show that eventually most lead released in anchorages found its way to the bottom (Oleson, 1994b). In closed basins, as found in some ports, there was little exchange of water and the lead accumulated in the sediment. Sedimentological studies carried out in the ancient harbours of Sidon (modern Saida), just north of the Israeli coast, and Alexandria, have revealed an increase in anthropogenic lead deposited in the bottom sediment during the Roman period, which was assumed to have been caused by industrial effluence from the town (Roux et al., 2003; Véron et al., 2006). Sidon was known more as a port and less as a metallurgical site; the lead accumulation was probably caused by ship-borne lead, corroborating the thesis presented here. As for Alexandria, it was said: ‘During the Greek and Roman periods, we expound the largest Pb pollution ever encountered in ancient city sediment with Pb levels twice as high as those measured in contemporary industrialized estuaries’ (Véron et al., 2006: 3). Mooring and anchoring sailors often fished in harbours, as indicated by recovered fishing-gear sinkers (Oleson, 1994b; Kingsley and Raveh, 1996). Such fish, consumed by the sailors, were contaminated by lead. Some ships sailing along the Israeli coast loaded and distributed Gaza and Ashkelon wines (Mayerson, 1985). Some vineyards producing these wines used lead equipment and pipes (Israel, 1995). Consuming transported wine increased the lead intake by crews.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Striving for engineering efficiency caused lead accumulation on Roman ships. A ship is a transportation machine designed to move safely in water and air. Simultaneously it is a home for crew and passengers and a storehouse for the cargo. Thus ships tend to employ many of the best technologies of their time. Equipment on board has to be functional, corrosion-resistant and simple to work and maintain. Lead suited these specifications better than most other materials available during Roman times. Lead sheathing easily fitted curved hulls, was easily holed by copper and bronze nails, was relatively corrosion-resistant, provided protection against wood decay, and functioned as ballast without consuming cargo space. Lead bilge-pump assemblies were easily bent, cut, and joined in tight environments where wooden or ceramic pipes were of no use. Lead brailing-rings, heavy yet ‘softer’ than iron or bronze rings, minimized wear on ropes and sails. Lead braziers were portable, resisted breakage and were easily mended. As lead is heavy and resilient it was ideal for anchor parts and for sounding-weights. Lead is still the ideal material for fishing-gear sinkers.

The Roman shipboard environment contained large quantities of lead in a large variety of forms relative to sites on land. The lead objects on board ships were less protected by patina than lead objects used on land. It may be concluded that relative to the general Roman population, people on board ships were highly exposed to lead and thus may have been susceptible to lead poisoning. Apparently the application of the best available ‘material science’ to optimize Roman ship operations dangerously exposed the sailors to lead. The Roman ship may be thus considered as a mobile focus of lead pollution. This study calls for further research on the problem of lead use on board Roman ships in order to define its effects on seamen and the marine environment in ancient ports and anchorages.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

We wish to thank Ms Z. Friedman for the drawings, Ms E. Rosen and Ms R. Galili for English editing, Ms H. Azimi for arranging the manuscript for publication and Y. Eylon, H. Sali, D. Moskovitch and A. Ya’akobovitch for participating in underwater surveys.

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The finds
  4. Site formation
  5. Lead artefacts
  6. Lead poisoning
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References
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