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The Environmental Effects of Populonia's Metallurgical Industry: Current Evidence and Future Directions

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The Environmental Effects of Populonia's Metallurgical Industry: Current Evidence and Future Directions
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  The Environmental Effects of Populonia’s Metallurgical Industry:Current Evidenceand Future Directions by Joey WilliamsI N T R OD U C T ION T he role of Populonia’s metallurgical industry in the city’s prolonged economicprosperity is well understood (Fig. 1). In contrast, the negative effects of thisindustrial site and of Etruscan metallurgy generally have received little attention.The mining and processing of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and copper have numer-ous environmental consequences, and these in turn have dangerous health effects witheven short-term exposure. Populonia’s position as a major producer of metals from theeighthcentury B.C.E. through second century C.E. (as well as the first half of the 20thcentury) makes questions about the ecology of the city and its territory all the moreimportant. Some effort has been made to address the deforestation resulting fromPopulonia’s industry, but the study of ecological degradation does not take into accountthe impact of industrial waste on the region and its inhabitants. 1 As other studies of envi-ronmental pollution have shown, exposure to contaminants is rarely uniform among agiven population.Fortunately for the scientist, if unfortunately for the region’s inhabitants, theenvironmental contaminants created by the processing of heavy metals are readilydetectable through archaeological and archaeometric approaches. The Etruscans, famousfor their metal-working in the ancient world, were afflicted with a variety of harmful con-sequences which arose from that same trade. This facet of Etruscan civilization, however,is undeveloped in archaeological scholarship. This paper assesses the evidence for envi-ronmental pollution at Populonia. Drawing from the available local evidence as well ascomparable sites from around the Mediterranean, some conclusions may be made con-cerning the effects of Populonia’s industry on ancient and modern populations.Additionally, new avenues for future research are proposed, particularly those which willaddress the relationships between industry, pollution, and society at Populonia. – 129 –  –––––– The Environmental Effects of Populonia’s Metallurgical Industry––––––  A R C H A E OLO G Y OF E N V I R ON M E N TA L P OL L U T ION I N T H EM E D I T E R R A N E A N Environmental contamination has been studied in a wide variety of archaeological con-texts, particularly those created by the industries of the ancient Mediterranean. The mostrecent considerations of the evidence for ancient environmental pollution concentrate onthe application of archaeometric techniques and the formation of both local and globalinterpretations. 2 In particular, the lead burden of skeletal remains recovered from sites inBritain, Italy, and Jordan (and beyond) has indicated that lead poisoning was commonamong some Roman populations, especially those living near mines and metal-workingsites. 3 Despite taking advantage of increasingly sophisticated technologies for the detec-tion of lead-in-bone levels, few of these studies analyze their data for evidence of thesocial variability of contaminant exposure, as is the norm in research of this type in NewWorld archaeological contexts. 4 Studies have also examined only those populations judged to be at-risk, with the notable exception of the work of A. C. Aufderheide et al.on the lead burden of Italian skeletal remains from the eighth century B.C.E. through theseventh century C.E. 5 Even Aufderheide’s study assesses the bone-in-lead burdens of dis-crete populations in order to create a general curve of lead exposure in Italy. Given thatenvironmental pollution often varies greatly from region to region (or even site to site)depending on the contaminating sources, these studies do not reflect wider trends withinthe ancient Mediterranean. 6 As another conse-quenceoftheseefforts,highlead burdens in ancientpopulations have begun tobe understood as the resultof environmental contami-nation caused by miningand metal-working ratherthan the intentional inges-tion of heavy metals. Thechange of focus from poi-soning to pollution is animportant one since itencourages archaeologiststo consider contaminantsbesides lead, which mayvery well have been used asa food additive by theRomans. 7 The best exampleof this new focus may beseen in the recent scholar-ship on the Roman metal- – 130 – N PiombinoPopuloniaMassaMaritimaVenturinaCampigliaMaritimaSan VincenzoElba  figure 1 – Map of the region of Northern Tuscany showing Populoniaand related sites.  –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Joey Williams –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– lurgical site in Wadi Faynan, Jordan. In addition to the effects of lead, these studies have alsoconsidered the consequences of long-term copper exposure on ancient and modern popula-tions. 8 Heavy metals such as copper and arsenic have negative health effects after long termexposure, and neither was intentionally ingested by ancient peoples as lead may have been.Their presence in archaeological contexts may thus allow insight into the effects of industryon ancient environments and their inhabitants.The refinement of scientific techniques has elicited an immense upsurge in the studyof ancient environments in general, and the pollution caused by Mediterranean industry inparticular. The most well-known example utilizes ice cored from Greenland to illuminate therelativelyhighleadcontentoftheatmosphereduringtheclassicalperiod. 9 Furtherevidenceof atmospheric pollution has been derived from core samples taken from peat bogs in Spain,Belgium, and France, among many others. 10 Peat cores, because they collect quantities of ashfrom nearby smelting sites, allow a better analysis of local atmospheric trends. They do not,however, record short-term fluctuation of contaminants as well as ice. 11 Together, ice and peatcores allow us a glimpse of the extent of atmospheric pollution in the northern hemisphereover several millennia.Despite increasing interest on environmental pollution in the ancient Mediterranean,most efforts have remained focused on Roman sites and populations. This is unsurprisinggiven the enduring and pervasive nature of Roman industry. Nevertheless, a conspicuousomission exists in most studies of the ancient pollution. 12 Metal production in the ancientworld peaks with the ascendancy of Roman industry, yet the increase in metal production inthe Mediterranean began long before Roman dominance. Given the extent of Etruscan metal-working, it is likely that this civilization also played a significant part in the contamination of the atmosphere as well as local ground and water resources. An examination of the ecologicalconsequences of Populonia’s industry is therefore necessary if we are to have a completeunderstanding of the extent and srcins of ancient pollution.Scholars have attempted to assess the environmental impact of modern mining andmetallurgyinTuscany,onlytodiscoverthatthelingeringeffectsofancientindustryoftenout-weigh more recent contamination. In particular, the ancient mines around Mount Amiata insouthern Tuscany remain sources of arsenic and mercury pollution, affecting populations inthe province of Siena even today. 13 On the other hand, the sixth century B.C.E. skeletalremains recovered in the same province and analyzed by atomic absorption spectroscopyindicate that the mean lead burden of at least some individuals was significantly lower than inneighboring areas. 14 The lead content of the soil in surrounding regions is notably high, sug-gesting that the bones were perhaps contaminated with lead after their deposition. 15 Regardless, the data from these sites is valuable when considering the territory of EtruscanPopulonia as it contained much the same industry – if not more.A number of other studies also investigate the srcins of heavy metal pollution inareas that were likely on the periphery of Populonia’s territory, or just beyond it. Samplesfrom sediments taken along the Bruna River indicate that Etruscan mining and smelting sitescontinue to have an adverse effect on the region, polluting water sources far more than mod-ern metallurgical industry in the same setting. 16 To the northwest in the Fenice Capanne, ananalysis of metallurgical wastes was conducted in an effort to design a plan for ecological – 131 –  –––––– The Environmental Effects of Populonia’s Metallurgical Industry–––––– remediation. The wastes are primarily composed of dumps containing the remnants of smelt-ingprocesseswhichdatetothe19thcenturyC.E.,sometimesoverlayingevidenceofEtruscanmetal-working. 17 Given the similar mineralogy of the immediate territory of Populonia, inparticular Campiglia Marittima, the Colline Metallifere, and the island of Elba, we shouldexpect similar contamination associated with these mine wastes.Twostudiesofmarinesedimentsareofthemostusefortheexaminationoftheeffectsof metal production on Populonia’s immediate environment. The first of these examines thetrace distribution of metals directly off the northern coast of the promontory of Piombino,where many tons of ore were smelted during the Etruscan occupation of the site. 18 In thisstudy, 41 surface samples and four cores were taken from separate points north of Populonia.These are analyzed via x-ray fluorescence spectrometry for their strontium, barium, cobalt,chromium, nickel, vanadium, copper, zinc, lead, and arsenic content. Using this data, theauthors created maps of the distribution and concentration of these elements. 19 The secondanalysis of marine sediments focuses on the archaeometallurgy of Elba, where a number of metal-working sites have been identified as Etruscan, and most likely Populonian. 20 Severalcore samples were collected from northern Tyrrhenian sea sediments and examined for theiriron content through magnetic susceptibility analysis. 21 In this way, the history of the region’siron production (and perhaps the production of other metals) is revealed. M I N I N G A N D M E TA L L U R G Y AT P OP U LON I A  Populonia’s location on the promontory of Piombino is likely the result of its inhabitants’ recog-nition of the prodigious mineralogical resources and propitious geomorphology of the site. Thecity is located on a defensible hill, surrounded on three sides by the sea. To the east of Populonia,a natural harbor was expanded under the Etruscans, but in use since at least 1000 B.C.E. 22 Within50 km, ancient Populonians had access to massive deposits of silver, copper, iron, mercury, lead,antimony,tin,arsenic,andzinc. 23 Anestimated220,000squaremetersofcopperandironslagweredepositedonthebeachbyancientindustry,themajorityofwhichwerereclaimedwithmoreeffi-cientsmeltingtechnologyduringtheearly20thcentury. 24 The mining and smelting of metals first occurred on the promontory of Piombino dur-ing the Chalcolithic period. 25 This early industry was limited, but by the Bronze Age, coastal set-tlementsintheregionextensivelyexploitedthemineralresourcesofCampigliaMarittimaandtheColline Metallifere. 26 The development of Villanovan Populonia has been linked to the increasingexploitationofmineralresourcesandtheresultingtrade(madeeasierbythecity’scoastalposition)during the Iron Age. 27 The increasing trade in bronze is demonstrated by the presence of numer-ous bronze hoards excavated from the promontory. 28 The beginning of the Iron Age sawPopulonia as a thriving trading center and metal production site, exporting processed metals andworkedobjectsthroughoutnorthernItalyandbeyond. 29 By the sixth century B.C.E., Etruscan Populonia was swiftly becoming one of theMediterranean’s most important sources of metals and metal products. It is estimated that themetal-working facilities near Populonia’s port alone accounted for 1-3 tons of sponge iron pro-duced per day between 600 – 100 B.C.E., with around 4 million tons of iron produced over thesite’soccupationalhistory. 30 Giventhenumberofmetal-workingsitesinotherpartsofPopulonia’s – 132 –  –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Joey Williams –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– territory–includingElba–thetotalamountofcopperandironsmeltedmayhavebeenmuchlarg-er. 31 TheproductionofbronzefromalloyingcopperandtinaswellascopperandarsenicremainedoneofPopulonia’smostimportantindustriesthroughoutitsoccupationalhistory.The vast amount of iron produced at Populonia suggests that this too was an importantproduct,althoughitsecologicalconsequencesarefarlessgravethanthoseresultingfromthepro-duction of arsenical bronze. Finally, by the third century B.C.E., Populonia’s mass production of silver coinage (meant to bolster the Italian economy during the second Punic War) resulted inwidespreadminingofgalenaore,fromwhichleadandsilvermaybothbesmelted. 32 Theuseofleaddid not begin in earnest until the Roman “plumbing revolution” – and numerous other applica-tions – encouraged its exploitation throughout Italy and eventually throughout Europe and theMediterranean. 33 In comparison, the Etruscans appear to have had little use for lead. By the firstcenturyC.E.,however,Populonia’sgalenasmelters–underRomancontrol–appeartohavebeenexportingleadingotsinsteadofmintingsilvercoinage. 34 Mining in the ancient world was laborious, dangerous, and extensive. Those mineralresourceswhichwereneartothesurfacewereextractedwithopenpitmines,suchasthosefoundin the Colline Metallifere. Those farther below the surface were mined with fire-setting and withsimple tools. Fire-setting, the setting of large fires in front of rock faces, was used to weaken spe-cific sections ofrockinorder tomake iteasier towork. Itcanbe usedbothfor precisionremovalofcertainsectionsofstone,orforlargescalefracturingandremoval. 35 Itisdescribedinconnectionwith Hannibal’s invasion of Italy by Livy (21.37) and in connection with Roman mining tech-niques by Pliny the Elder ( Historia natura  23.57 and 33.71). Additionally, both Livy and Plinymention soaking rocks in vinegar prior to setting fires in front of them. At least in calcites such aslimestone,theacidicvinegarwouldreducethestoneandmakeitsomewhateasiertowork. 36 Fire-setting is dangerous in enclosed spaces, such as a mine, and so requires the evacua-tion of a mine before it is used. A 16th century C.E. woodcut illustrating the technique shows aminerwithalamp(likelytheindividualresponsibleforlightingthefire)leavingtheminewithhisfacecovered. 37 SimilarscenesnodoubtoccurredinminesthroughoutPopulonia’sterritoryasmin-ersattemptedtoprotectthemselvesagainstthefumes.Whatisnotclear,however,iswhatprecau-tions (if any) these miners took to protect themselves from the dangers associated with extractingandprocessingheavymetals.Whenthefire(andperhapsvinegar)hadweakenedtherock,minersattackeditwithmetalpicks,hammers,andwedges.Orewascollectedinbasketsorwoodentraysandthenbroughttothesurface.There,itwasbrokenupwithhammersandtransportedtosmelt-ing furnaces for processing. 38 For the miners, this was a dangerous, solitary process. Breaking upmetallic ores, particularly in enclosed spaces, creates poisonous dust which can have numerousdeleteriouseffectsifinhaled.Oncetransportedawayfromthemines,oreswereprocessedinshaftfurnaces.Thesefur-naces are recorded throughout Populonia’s territory, but were found primarily in the CampigliaMarittima, central Elba, and near the beach at Baratti. 39 Once the furnace was at the appropriatetemperature for smelting the particular metals, the ore was dumped into the shaft. There, themoltenmetalswerereducedandseparated,withthewasteslagfloatingatthetop.Thefurnacewasthen tapped and the molten metal collected in a casting pit below the furnace. Once the furnacecooled,boththemetalandtheslagwereremoved. 40 Themetalwasthentransportedtoworkshopsforfurtherworkingandcastingintoingots. – 133 –
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