On Antimony in Pipes and Pompeii: Yeah … About That

Yesterday evening came the first word of a study bringing up the old idea of ‘lead and the downfall of Rome’ with a different twist. Specifically, that it wasn’t lead that was a big deal at Pompeii, but rather antimony, which can have all sorts of nasty ill effects in various contexts.  It is rather problematic as I see it, and hopefully this post will prevent the sensationalism which is already starting to percolate around this study. Let’s begin with the press release from the University of Southern Denmark:

The ancient Romans were famous for their advanced water supply. But the drinking water in the pipelines was probably poisoned on a scale that may have led to daily problems with vomiting, diarrhoea, and liver and kidney damage. This is the finding of analyses of water pipe from Pompeii.

 The concentrations were high and were definitely problematic for the ancient Romans. Their drinking water must have been decidedly hazardous to health.

This is what a chemist from University of Southern Denmark reveals: Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a specialist in archaeological chemistry. He analysed a piece of water pipe from Pompeii, and the result surprised both him and his fellow scientists. The pipes contained high levels of the toxic chemical element, antimony.

The result has been published in the journal, Toxicology Letters.

Romans poisoned themselves

For many years, archaeologists have believed that the Romans’ water pipes were problematic when it came to public health. After all, they were made of lead: a heavy metal that accumulates in the body and eventually shows up as damage to the nervous system and organs. Lead is also very harmful to children. So there has been a long-lived thesis that the Romans poisoned themselves to a point of ruin through their drinking water.
However, this thesis is not always tenable. A lead pipe gets calcified rather quickly, thereby preventing the lead from getting into the drinking water. In other words, there were only short periods when the drinking water was poisoned by lead: for example, when the pipes were laid or when they were repaired: assuming, of course, that there was lime in the water, which there usually was, says Kaare Lund Rasmussen.

Instead, he believes that the Romans’ drinking water may have been poisoned by the chemical element, antimony, which was found mixed with the lead.

Advanced equipment at SDU

Unlike lead, antimony is acutely toxic. In other words, you react quickly after drinking poisoned water. The element is particularly irritating to the bowels, and the reactions are excessive vomiting and diarrhoea that can lead to dehydration. In severe cases it can also affect the liver and kidneys and, in the worst-case scenario, can cause cardiac arrest.

This new knowledge of alarmingly high concentrations of antimony comes from a piece of water pipe found in Pompeii.

– Or, more precisely, a small metal fragment of 40 mg, which I obtained from my French colleague, Professor Philippe Charlier of the Max Fourestier Hospital, who asked if I would attempt to analyse it. The fact is that we have some particularly advanced equipment at SDU, which enables us to detect chemical elements in a sample and, ever more importantly, to measure where they occur in large concentrations.

Volcano made it even worse

Kaare Lund Rasmussen underlines that he only analysed this one little fragment of water pipe from Pompeii. It will take several analyses before we can get a more precise picture of the extent, to which Roman public health was affected.

But there is no question that the drinking water in Pompeii contained alarming concentrations of antimony, and that the concentration was even higher than in other parts of the Roman Empire, because Pompeii was located in the vicinity of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius. Antimony also occurs naturally in groundwater near volcanoes.

This is what the researchers did

The measurements were conducted on a Bruker 820 Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer.

The sample was dissolved in concentrated nitric acid. 2 mL of the dissolved sample was transferred to a loop and injected as an aerosol in a stream of argon gas which was heated to 6000 degrees C by the plasma.

All the elements in the sample were ionized and transferred as an ion beam into the mass spectrometer. By comparing the measurements against measurements on a known standard the concentration of each element is determined.

The story was picked up practically verbatim by the usual science sites:

It’s also been picked up elsewhere and rewritten:

So much for coverage. If one goes to the actual article and downloads it (for 36 bucks), there will be profound disappointment, as the press release is probably as long as the article (fortunately I have a son with access). Here’s the citation if you care to pursue it (it’s considered ‘in press, corrected copy’):

P. Charlier, F. Bou Abdallah, R. Bruneau, S. Jacqueline, A. Augias, R. Bianucci, A. Perciaccante, D. Lippi, O. Appenzeller, K.L. Rasmussen, Did the Romans die of antimony poisoning? The case of a Pompeii water pipe (79 CE), Toxicology Letters, 2017, ISSN 0378-4274, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.toxlet.2017.07.876.
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037842741731113X)

As is usually the case, I will preface my objections/observations by pointing out I’m a Classicist, not a scientist, but there are a couple of things in this study which set off alarm bells: one from a Classics standpoint, and one from a Science standpoint. First, the Classics objection: the piece of pipe that was studied was “a small metal fragment of 40 mg, which I obtained from my French colleague, Professor Philippe Charlier of the Max Fourestier Hospital.” As I voiced briefly on Twitter a couple of times, this is not really acceptable, even as a starting point. How does a Professor in a French hospital come to have a piece of Pompeii pipe? The Toxicology Letters article says it comes from the House of Caecilius Jucundus from 1875 and is now in a private collection. I really think we need some documentation confirming that provenance. Yes, the House of Caecilius Jucundus was excavating in 1875, but how did this tiny piece of pipe come to be in France? There are plenty of sources of Roman lead to be found, and our current knowledge of the antiquities market suggests we need more assurance in regards to how this piece got to France from Pompeii, if indeed it did.

The other objection is tied more to the piece in Toxicology Letters. Without getting into lead and calcification of pipes which has recently been called into question (see, e.g., D. Keenan-Jones, Lead contamination in the drinking water of Pompeii) we note this comment in the article, dealing with the ‘leachability’ of antimony into a water supply from lead pipes:

This is an alarming level because antimony is easily leached from the lead water pipe, and antimony poses a serious health hazard, as demonstrated by a study conducted on loops of lead pipes containing twenty Sn/Sb joints soldered by antimony. Barely detectable initially (less than 0.004 ppm), antimony concentration in the water running through the pipes reached a level of 0.01 ppm in 4 days, and of 0.068 ppm within four weeks (corresponding to 0.068 mg/L) (Murrell, 1987). This effect has not been reproduced by other studies due to the variability of experimental conditions such as water pH, debit, and concentration of antimony in the pipes.

The first thing to note is that the comparative study is based on pipes which were soldered with antimony, so the water flowing through those pipes presumably would come in direct contact. Roman pipes were soldered with lead, not antimony. Second, we seem to be dealing with some sort of closed system involving ‘loops’, so a particular quantity of water would be repeatedly exposed to the antimony solder as opposed to just flowing through a pipe, presumably picking up more antimony each time around. That looks like a situation which will skew results. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the effect is apparently not reproducible and hasn’t been reproduced in thirty years. If you’re interested in tracking down that study (which Google couldn’t find today):

Murrell, N.E., 1987. Impact of Metal Solders on Water Quality. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Water Works Association, Part 1. Denver American Water Works Association pp. 39–43.

That said, it’s worth noting that the author of the study is aware of the limitations based on one sample, but that admission will be forgotten in the sensational headlines. In the press release:

Kaare Lund Rasmussen underlines that he only analysed this one little fragment of water pipe from Pompeii. It will take several analyses before we can get a more precise picture of the extent, to which Roman public health was affected.

The piece in Toxicology Letters concludes with:

We strongly suggest further studies (including antimony level analyses in human bones and coprolites) to verify this groundbreaking theory.

In other words, by all accounts we’re still at the theory stage. This really shouldn’t be getting press coverage yet, much less sensational headlines.

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CJ-Online Review: The Museum of Augustus: The Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, the Portico of Philippus in Rome, and Latin Poetry

The Museum of Augustus: The Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, the Portico of Philippus in Rome, and Latin Poetry. By Peter Heslin. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015. Pp. xiii + 350. Hardcover, $65.00. ISBN 978-1-60606-421-4.
Reviewed by Christina Kraus, Yale University
This fascinating, beautifully produced book is a terrific read putting forward detailed and sophisticated arguments that will certainly provoke productive discussion.  Disclaimer: I am not an art historian or archaeologist-but neither is Heslin.  All the more remarkable, then, that he has produced such an intriguing, archivally rich study, with a methodology combining close reading of architectural and archaeological drawings, ancient artistic representations, and poetry with historiographical research into the excavations of the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii and the area of the Portico of Philippus in Rome. He reveals his method in his preface (xi): “Most of the research for this book was … done online rather than in museums, at sites, and in archives”; he also relies on enlargements-only possible digitally-of scanned drawings, reconstructions, and photographs of his sites and paintings.  He was fortunate in his publisher, who has reproduced quantities of these in fantastic clarity. (Paradoxically, this is a book that is very much a physical pleasure to handle and to read.) Heslin, an expert on the possibilities raised by the digital revolution, is certainly right that his method of research in this project is one of the best ways forward, not only for scholars who cannot travel to see the sites themselves, but also in cases such as this one where the on-site material has been degraded past legibility, or destroyed altogether.

Heslin begins with a detailed analysis of the drawings and reconstructions made by early visitors to Pompeii, after the frescoes in the Temple were uncovered (1817) and before they were irretrievably damaged by exposure; he also makes heavy use of the mid-19th century cork model of the city. He then moves via a study of copies of the more popular paintings in private Pompeian houses to an analysis of the now-lost Portico of Philippus, including a lucid investigation of its development from the Republican Aedes Herculis Musarum. (This was physically incorporated into the later, larger complex erected by Augustus’ stepbrother and uncle, L. Marcius Philippus.) He wants both to decipher the original fresco cycle and to show that the Apolline temple decorations in Pompeii were based on-if not copies of-Theorus’s cycle of frescoes in the Portico. Heslin’s real target is that Roman cycle which-together with the Portico itself and the other art it contained-was “the public justification in the language of Roman architecture of Augustus’s patronage of poetry … his importation of the Museum of Alexandria into a Roman context” (2). Augustus in fact, Heslin argues, separated the Alexandrian Museum complex into two: as a rebuilding of the Aedes, the Portico continued its longstanding tradition as a prestigious meeting place for the guild of poets, while Apollo-a god less congenial to the Romans, who did not build a temple to him in Republican times-received his own home on the Palatine, with the new libraries, trumpeting Augustus as the principal patron of the arts (187).

I have by necessity vastly oversimplified Heslin’s argument, the beauty and challenge of which is in the details, from readings of the Marble Plan to the Tabulae Iliacae to 19th century German engravings. For literary scholars, the payoff will come in his final chapter, “Imaginary Temples,” on the poets who responded to this art. Heslin looks closely at the poems that clearly refer to the Aedes Herculis Musarum: Vergil’s prologue to Georgics 3, Propertius (though the promised discussion of 3.4-5 is missing [300]), Horace’s Odes, and-most intriguingly to me-the decorations on Juno’s temple in Aeneid 1.
I would especially like to believe the thesis that Aeneas is misreading those paintings not (as we have long recognized) because he sees glory for the Trojans where the Carthaginians must be celebrating their slaughter, but because, having only his own, subjective experience of the war to go by, he simply misidentifies the people represented. What Aeneas describes can be mapped onto the cycle of paintings that Heslin reconstructs, but he gets the names wrong: so, e.g., when Aeneas sees the tide of battle being turned by a person he identifies as Achilles (instaret curru cristatus Achilles, 1.468), Heslin suggests that Aeneas recognizes the armor because he has seen Achilles in it, but that because he has not read the Iliad, he does not know that it is in fact Patroclus wearing Achilles’ armor who turns the tide in Book 16. If Heslin is right (and he has many other examples), then the depth of the effect of art on the reader(s) in the Aeneid-and the map of misreadings we can construct around it-is even more remarkable than has previously been understood.
But that’s a big ‘if’. Heslin disregards too much recent scholarship on the Aedes (especially the important work of Alexander Hardie), and he is at times overly reductive. So, for example, in his treatment of pattern books (143), which is a mixture of assertion (“there is no evidence at all” for them-but then why do archaeologists appeal to them?) and oversimplification: assuming that local artists used pattern books “reduces [them] to more or less competent robots, slavishly attempting to imitate artistic forms that they scarcely understood”. Either the books existed or they did not; but (1) if they did, then one could profitably look at studies of 19th-century architectural pattern book use, which demonstrate that robotic copying is far from what was going on; and (2) if they did not, then this is simply a straw man, related to the straw men on whom Heslin depends far too much, of the art historian who looks at all Roman art as copies of Greek “originals,” hand in hand with the literary scholar who ignores material culture.  Both of those creatures are on their way out; Heslin doesn’t need them. Better to direct scholars to works like the new book by Vibeke Goldbeck, Fora Augusta, on the reception of the Forum Augustum in the West, including Pompeii; that book came out too late for Heslin to take account of, but it and similar studies support his strong argument that the Pompeian cycle was part of the imitatio Vrbis, a reinterpretation of a complex and influential building program at Rome.


Posted with permission …

©2017 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.

CJ-Online Reviews Archive

Patterns in Pompeii Wall Collapses Redux

As I slowly emerge from my blogging hibernation, I can’t help but be struck (again) by the latest Pompeii news working through the Italian press about the collapse of a small wall associated with the Caupona of Demetrius and Helpis Afra. While I can’t find a photo of the extent of the damage, most of the reports, it appears, include something to the effect:

La piccola cinta in muratura di circa 2 metri di lunghezza e non  decorato da affreschi, era stato restaurato nel Dopoguerra. Gli esperti ripararono i danni arrecati alla struttura dai bombardamenti del 1943.

i.e. the collapse is in a structure that was restored after the allied bombardment in WWII. Years ago — five, in fact — I noted that most of the wall collapses at Pompeii seem to be in areas that were restored in the wake of said bombing and that it might be a good idea to ‘check the mortar’ or something. Am I the only one who sees the pattern?

See also:

News from Pompeii: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Catching up with what’s been happening at Pompeii … first, from ANSA, we read of 10 ‘new’ houses being opened to the public:

From the sumptuous frescoes of the Hunting Lodge (Casa della Caccia) to the exquisite decorations of the House of Apollo (Casa di Apollo) and vivid reliefs of the Trojan War, Pompeii is seducing visitors this summer with 10 newly restored houses, some of which had never been open to the public before. After long controversy regarding the lack of personnel at Pompeii, the ministry of culture has dispatched 30 new keepers for the holiday season, a State exam to select new janitors is in the works, and extended opening hours on Friday mean the public can stroll through the ruins after sundown. Tourists are enjoying the new sites: more than 13,000 visitors flocked to Pompeii on the August 15 national religious holiday, bringing proceeds in excess of 114,000 euros, while 122 people decided to explore the city preserved in lava during night visiting hours.

The 10 new houses include the Thermopolium (Latin for restaurant) of Vetutius Placidus, where people could buy cooked food to go. It boasts shrines to Mercury and Dionysus (the gods of commerce and wine, respectively), a dining hall, and an adjoining mansion with a vestibule, a garden, and a dining room.

The Ancient Hunting Lodge (Casa della Caccia Antica) is another must-see at Pompeii. According to experts, it had just undergone renovation when it was buried under meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. An extensive hunting scene is still visible on one of its garden walls, and its interiors are luxuriously decorated with beautiful paintings and marble-like coverings.

Also noteworthy are the Domus Cornelia and its exquisite sculptures, the House of Apollo adorned with images of the god to which it owes its name, and the House of Achilles with its impressive reliefs of the Trojan war.

… but then we hear of a French tourist being caught trying to take some tiles home as a souvenir (this is the Bad) … from the Local:

A French tourist was arrested on Tuesday after stealing a relic from the ancient ruins of Pompeii. It is the latest in a string of thefts from the site which one tour guide told The Local “is all too easy to steal from”.

The 51-year-old was arrested for theft while trying to escape from the site in southern Italy, Articolo Tre reported.

He had taken pieces of red plaster and fragments from an amphora handle as a “souvenir”.

The latest theft comes just a few months after a tourist from Georgia was caught trying to steal tiles from a mosaic at the site, also to take home as a keepsake.

Giorgio Melani, from Guide Pompei, told The Local that the vast site is easy to steal from because there are few custodians guarding the relics.

But Giuseppe Galano, a tour guide at Visit Pompeii, believes some tourists visit the site specifically to leave with some of its “treasure”.

“I question whether they would do the same thing at home. They know Pompeii is famous and they want a piece of it,” he said, adding that the summer is peak season for theft.

“Especially on the first Sunday of each month when the entrance is free. About 14,000 people passed through the gates last Sunday; how can you control that?”

While the relics from the latest thefts are now back in safe hands, others from Pompeii have made it as far as eBay.

Just last week an Australian auction advertised a mosaic from the site, but the advert was quickly removed after it caught the attention of the Italian police

In January, a brick supposedly taken from the ruins in 1958 was also put up for sale on the online retail site for just $99, or a little over €70. The listing, which included four photos of the brick, soon caught the attention of online surfers and, eventually, the police.

As for the Ugly (in the sense it’s probably something you don’t want to see), here’s the Telegraph coverage of a story that’s been making the rounds over the past week:

Among the most popular attractions in the ancient city of Pompeii are the colourful frescoes which depict the lurid sexual fantasies of those who lived there 2,000 years ago.

Inspired by the images, a French tourist and two Italian women decided to make their personal fantasy a reality. They were caught climbing the walls of the UNESCO World Heritage site late on Tuesday night, heading for the city’s Suburban Baths.

The communal baths were once a lively meeting place for wealthy merchants and political leaders before the city was wiped out in the devastating volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.

The bath walls were vividly decorated with explicit sex scenes, including group sex, for patrons who were looking to visit the prostitutes nearby.

The trio – a 32-year-old French man from Lyon and his companions – were seeking to bring those images to life when they were caught by custodians in a Pompeii piazza and handed over to police.

One Italian report said they were semi-naked and confessed to police that they were looking for the baths to fulfil their desires.

Pompeii officials said the three had neither damaged nor stolen anything from the historic site and police said they were only charged with trespassing.

But their escapade has provoked plenty of debate in an Italian press more accustomed to writing about tourists stealing souvenirs or etching their names in the walls of the country’s ancient treasures.

“There is fornication and fornication,” said commentator Pietro Treccagrioli from the daily, Il Mattino. “If it is done for art, it deserves applause.”

Experts say six frescoes in the apodyterium or changing room of the Pompeii bath house offer an “erotic catalogue” of the era and many of the villas in Pompeii also display the remnants of erotic images and statues.

Still Yet Another Collapse at Pompeii

From the Guardian:

Italy’s culture minister demanded explanations on Sunday after more collapses this weekend in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii raised concerns about the state of one of the world’s most treasured archaeological sites.

Pompeii, preserved under ash from a volcanic eruption in 79AD and rediscovered in the 18th century, has been hit by a series of collapses in recent months and years which have sparked international outcry over the neglect of the site.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus.

Heavy rains were cited as the immediate cause.

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Culture minister Dario Franceschini, appointed last month in the new government of Matteo Renzi, summoned officials responsible for the site to Rome for an “emergency meeting” on Tuesday.

He said he wanted a report on the reasons for the latest collapses and would verify routine maintenance at Pompeii as well as the progress of an ambitious restoration project launched last year with European Union funds.

Italian media have highlighted the contrast between the management of Pompeii and a successful exhibition about the ancient Roman city at the British Museum in London last year, which attracted record numbers of visitors.

Pompeii, a Unesco world heritage site, was home to about 13,000 people when it was buried under ash, pumice pebbles and dust as it endured the force of an eruption equivalent to 40 atomic bombs.

Two-thirds of the 66-hectare town has since been uncovered. The site attracts more than two million tourists each year, making it one of Italy’s most popular attractions.

All the articles include a photo of the collapsed wall … it doesn’t strike me as a rain-caused collapse. It looks like something that was pushed.

More coverage: