Human bones tell the story of atmospheric mercury and lead exposure at the edge of Roman World

Olalla López-Costas*, Malin Kylander, Nadine Mattielli, Noemi Álvarez-Fernández, Marta Pérez-Rodríguez, Tim Mighall, Richard Bindler, Antonio Martínez Cortizas

*Corresponding author for this work

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Atmospheric metal pollution is a major health concern whose roots pre-date industrialization. This study pertains the analyses of ancient human skeletons and compares them with natural archives to trace historical environmental exposure at the edge of the Roman Empire in NW Iberia. The novelty of our approach relies on the combination of mercury, lead and lead isotopes. We found over a 700-year period that rural Romans incorporated two times more mercury and lead into their bones than post-Romans inhabiting the same site, independent of sex or age. Atmospheric pollution sources contributed on average 57% (peaking at 85%) of the total lead incorporated into the bones in Roman times, which decreased to 24% after the decline of Rome. These values and accompanying changes in lead isotopic composition mirror changes in atmospheric Pb deposition recorded in local peatlands. Thus, skeletons are a time-transgressive archive reflecting contaminant exposure.
Original languageEnglish
Article number136319
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date30 Dec 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Dec 2019



  • Mercury
  • Lead
  • Lead isotope
  • Pollution
  • Skeleton
  • Archaeology

Cite this

López-Costas, O., Kylander, M., Mattielli, N., Álvarez-Fernández, N., Pérez-Rodríguez, M., Mighall, T., Bindler, R., & Cortizas, A. M. (2020). Human bones tell the story of atmospheric mercury and lead exposure at the edge of Roman World. Science of the Total Environment, 710, [136319].