Greenland’s ice provides a detailed account of the Roman empire’s economy

Fascinating to read this account by Jason Daley.

Researchers are analysing icecaps to figure minting activity in Roman empire:

e know a lot about the Roman Empire. Not only did famous Romans like Julius Caesar write about their own accomplishments and plaster their names and works on public buildings, historians also chronicled the rise and fall of the powerful civilization. But sometimes it’s hard to know how the average person in the Empire was doing—while Caesar was off conquering Gaul, was the economy good? During the Year of the Four Emperors, when intrigue and infighting rocked the empire, was the government still minting money? As Katie Langin at Science reports, researchers recently found some insight locked in Greenland’s ice cap.

Besides the power of the legions, Rome’s might lay in its wealth, the cornerstone of which was a silver coin known as a denarius. Producing the silver needed to mint all those coins meant smelting silver ore, which produced a lot of lead pollution. Since the 1990s, researchers have realized that the lead pollution produced by smelters across the Empire drifted 2,800 miles and left traces in peat bogs in Scotland and the Faroe Islands and in ice cores from Greenland’s ice cap. But those layers were imprecise and could not give a year-by-year reading of how much silver was being produced.

Using new techniques, however, historians and ice core experts have been able to take a closer look at the ice, slowly melting the cores to get 12 lead measurements per year from the length of the Roman Empire, roughly 1100 B.C.E. to 800 C.E. The 1,900-year chronology mirrors many of the ups and downs of the Empire, as described by historians past and present. The research appears in The Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Nicholas Wade at The New York Times reports that ice cores from Greenland are hard to get, and it can take years to carefully drill through all the ice to reach bedrock. Luckily, ice core expert Joseph R. McConnell—ironically of the Desert Research Institute in Reno—knew of a core that had to be abandoned and was able to convince the core’s drillers to let him analyze a section dating between 1235 B.C.E. and 1257 C.E.

….

In general, the smelting activity rises and falls with Rome’s civil wars and disease outbreaks. The levels finally drop to pre-Roman levels during the Antonine Plague of 165 to around 180 C.E. and they do not recover for another 500 years. It also plummets during the Plague of Cyprian in the 3rd century. “We found that lead pollution in Greenland very closely tracked known plagues, wars, social unrest and imperial expansions during European antiquity,” McConnell says in the release.

 

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