Romans were early pioneers of recycling

A study using gold impurities in silver coins and lead pollution in Greenland ice suggests that the Romans were early pioneers of recycling.

The process of extracting silver from ores and the refining at mints results in high volumes of lead pollution. During antiquity, this pollution entered the atmosphere, and drifed across the Atlantic leaving a “pollution fingerprint” in the Greenland ice.

- Advertisement -

The study, published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, highlights a significant reduction in lead pollution levels in the ice during the late Roman Republic, despite the continued production of coins.

The likely cause was a period of conflict during the first and second centuries BC, when Rome’s access to silver mines in Iberia and southern France was interrupted.

Deliberate debasement of the denarii (the predominant silver coin of the Romans) with copper is often considered to show interruptions in silver production. Yet, despite slight dips in the fineness of silver coins (especially around the times of the Social and Civil Wars in the first century BC), this does not provide enough of an explanation for the drops in lead pollution.

In elucidating this occurrence, Dr. Jonathan Wood and Dr. Matthew Ponting, researchers from the University of Liverpool, attribute it to the Romans’ practice of recycling silver, frequently acquired through post-conflict looting in Iberia and southern France for coin production.

- Advertisement -

According to the researchers: “At around 120 BC clusters of coins began appearing with very low levels of gold in them. The silver used for these coins also appears to have become part of the silver supply for coinage in the first half of the first century BC. Then, in 49 BC, a new infusion of silver with high levels of gold in it appears to enter circulation. Given that Julius Caesar returned to Rome from his battles with the Gauls in 49 BC, the researchers propose that this new silver in circulation was plundered by Caesar’s army.”

Dr Jonathan Wood said: “Debasing silver was one way to deal with fluctuations in the silver supply. Melting down existing silver, either yours or someone else’s, was another. For the Romans, recycling coins would have been considerably less expensive than extracting new silver – a benefit for their finances, as well as for the environment.”

University of Liverpool

Header Image Credit : Alamy

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Sealed 18th century glass bottles discovered at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

As part of a $40 million Mansion Revitalisation Project, archaeologists have discovered two sealed 18th century glass bottles at George Washington's Mount Vernon.

Study suggests human occupation in Patagonia prior to the Younger Dryas period

Archaeologists have conducted a study of lithic material from the Pilauco and Los Notros sites in north-western Patagonia, revealing evidence of human occupation in the region prior to the Younger Dryas period.

Fort excavation uncovers Roman sculpture

Archaeologists excavating Stuttgart’s Roman fort have uncovered a statue depicting a Roman god.

The history of the Oak Island Money Pit

Oak Island, located in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, is a small 140-acre island which has been the subject of an ongoing treasure hunt since 1795.

Has the burial of an Anglo-Saxon king been uncovered?

Wessex founder Cerdic’s possible final resting place has emerged more than 1,000 years after it was named in an ancient royal charter.

Archaeologists uncover 4,200-year-old “zombie grave”

Archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt have uncovered a "zombie grave" during excavations near Oppin, Germany.

Archaeologists uncover 2,000-year-old clay token used by pilgrims

A clay token unearthed by the Temple Mount Sifting Project, is believed to have served pilgrims exchanging offerings during the Passover festival 2,000-years-ago.

Moon may have influenced Stonehenge construction

A study by a team of archaeoastronomers are investigating the possible connection of the moon in influencing the Stonehenge builders.