Controversy over the use of Roman ingots to investigate dark matter and neutrinos

Related Articles

Related Articles

The properties of these lead bricks recovered from ancient shipwrecks are ideal for experiments in particle physics.

Scientists from the CDMS dark matter detection project in Minnesota (USA) and from the CUORE neutrino observatory at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy have begun to use them, but archaeologists have raised alarm about the destruction and trading of cultural heritage that lies behind this. The journal ‘Science’ has expressed this dilemma formulated by two Spanish researchers in the United Kingdom.

Two thousand years ago, a Roman vessel with ingots of lead extracted from the Sierra of Cartagena sank across the waters from the coast of Sardinia. Since 2011, more than a hundred of these ingots have been used to build the ‘Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events’ (CUORE), an advanced detector of neutrinos – almost weightless subatomic particles – at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy.

 

In the 18th century, another ship loaded with lead ingots was wrecked on the French coast. A company of treasure hunters retrieved this material and, despite problems with French authorities, managed to sell it to the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) team. This detector located in a mine in Minnesota (USA) looks for signs of the enigmatic dark matter, which is believed to constitute a quarter of the universe.

These two examples have served as reference for the discussion that two researchers have opened between archaeologists, worried by the destruction of underwater cultural heritage, and particle physicists, pleased to have found a unique material for research on neutrinos and dark matter.

As Elena Perez-Alvaro explains to SINC from the University of Birmingham: “Roman lead is essential for conducting these experiments because it offers purity and such low levels of radioactivity – all the more so the longer it has spent underwater – which current methods for producing this metal cannot reach.”

Bou Ferrer shipwreck - a roman lead ingot. Credit: De Juan/D. G. de Cultura - Generalitat Valenciana
Bou Ferrer shipwreck – a roman lead ingot. Credit: De Juan/D. G. de Cultura – Generalitat Valenciana

 

“Lead extracted today is naturally contaminated with the isotope Pb-210, which prevents it from being used as shielding for particle detectors”, adds physicist Fernando González Zalba from the University of Cambridge.

The two researchers have published a study in the journal ‘Rosetta’, also commented upon this month in ‘Science’, which poses a dilemma: Should we sacrifice part of our cultural heritage in order to achieve greater knowledge of the universe and the origin of humankind? Should we yield part of our past to discover more about our future?

“Underwater archaeologists see destruction of heritage as a loss of our past, our history, whilst physicists support basic research to look for answers we do not yet have,” remarks Perez-Alvaro, “although this has led to situations in which, for example, private companies like Odyssey trade lead recovered from sunken ships.” This is the company that had to return the treasure of the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes to Spain.

Dialogue between underwater archaeologists and particle physicists

The underwater archaeologist and the physicist are encouraging dialogue between both collectives, as well as developing legislation that regulates these kinds of activities, without limiting them exclusively to archaeologists, and including scientists. “Recovery for knowledge in both fields, and not merely for commercial reasons,” the scientists stress.

The jury is still out. In the case of the CUORE detector, for example, in principle the lead from the least well-preserved Roman ingots is used, although their inscriptions are cut and preserved. Some archaeologists also suggests that there are other pieces of valuable metal, such as anchor stocks, rings or tackles for fishing that we should assess whether or not to “sacrifice for science”. The problem is that they are protected by UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage if they have been under water more than 10 years and the 2003 Convention for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage.

Regarding the habitual use that Romans made of these ingots, Pérez Álvaro points out that there are many theories, “but they were generally used as water-resistant material for pipes, water tanks or roofs, but also in the manufacture of arms and ammunition.”

A special case are the large lead bricks recovered from the largest Roman ship of the excavation of the Mediterranean, the wreck of the Bou Ferrer, which sunk very close to the port of La Vila Joiosa (Alicante). A series of engravings (IMP. GER. AVG) enable specialists to determine that their owner was the Emperor of Rome himself, probably Caligula, Claudius or Nero.

Header Image : Bou Ferrer shipwreck. Credit: De Juan/D. G. de Cultura – Generalitat Valenciana

Contributing Source : Plataforma SINC

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

“Woodhenge” Discovered in the Iberian Peninsula

Archaeologists conducting research in the Perdigões complex in the Évora district of the Iberian Peninsula has uncovered a “Woodhenge” monument.

New Fossil Discovery Shows How Ancient ‘Hell Ants’ Hunted With Headgear

Researchers from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes in France have unveiled a stunning 99-million-year-old fossil pristinely preserving an enigmatic insect predator from the Cretaceous Period -- a 'hell ant' (haidomyrmecine) -- as it embraced its unsuspecting final victim, an extinct relative of the cockroach known as Caputoraptor elegans.

New Algorithm Suggests That Early Humans and Related Species Interbred Early and Often

A new analysis of ancient genomes suggests that different branches of the human family tree interbred multiple times, and that some humans carry DNA from an archaic, unknown ancestor.

Long Neck Helped Reptile Hunt Underwater

Its neck was three times as long as its torso, but had only 13 extremely elongated vertebrae: Tanystropheus, a bizarre giraffe-necked reptile which lived 242 million years ago, is a paleontological absurdity.

A New Look at Mars’ Eerie, Ultraviolet Nighttime Glow

Every night on Mars, when the sun sets and temperatures fall to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit and below, an eerie phenomenon spreads across much of the planet's sky: a soft glow created by chemical reactions occurring tens of miles above the surface.

Global Magnetic Field of the Solar Corona Measured for the First Time

An international team of solar physicists, including academics from Northumbria University, in Newcastle upon Tyne, has recently measured the global magnetic field of the outer most layer of the Sun’s atmosphere, the solar corona, for the first time.

New Insight Into The Evolution of Complex Life on Earth

A novel connection between primordial organisms and complex life has been discovered, as new evidence sheds light on the evolutionary origins of the cell division process that is fundamental to complex life on Earth.

NASA Data Helps Uncover Our Solar System’s Shape

Scientists have developed a new prediction of the shape of the bubble surrounding our solar system using a model developed with data from NASA missions.

Popular stories

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.

The Real Dracula?

“Dracula”, published in 1897 by the Irish Author Bram Stoker, introduced audiences to the infamous Count and his dark world of sired vampiric minions.