DETROIT -- Romans liked to spike their wine with lead, and the toxic metal has been found in newly discovered Roman skeletons -- the first evidence supporting the theory lead poisoning contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, a scientist said today.
'Much has been written about lead as a factor in the decline of the Roman Empire,' Sara C. Bisel, an anthropologist and archeologist, said in an interview after addressing an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.
'Everyone else has been looking at the literature. This is looking at the actual bones of the actual people. That's why it's important,' she said. 'This is the first time that we've had actual Romans to test. The results are preliminary.'
The victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption 1,900 years ago, which also destroyed Pompeii in A.D. 79, were buried 60 feet deep by a hot volcanic avalanche in the Mediterranean sea coast town of Herculaneum.
The first large numbers of skeletons were discovered in 1982. So far, more than 120 have been found and most are nearly complete from skull to toe.
Ms. Bisel began a series of bone lead determination.
'Lead's not good for you. If you have lead poisoning, you're sort of crazy,' she said. 'The ruling class in Rome was into lead and that's why they had crazy people ... like Nero.
'Also, lead caused abortions so the ruling class did not produce many offspring ... sort of diluting talent and not being able to reproduce themselves.'
'Lead should not be in bones,' she said. 'Lead is not a normal substance to have.'
The Romans 'made a concoction with wine and they boiled wine in lead pots for a long time and put diluted lead soup in other wine that was sour and sweetened it with the lead concoction -- because lead tastes good and it makes this wine that is a little bit sour taste sweet again.
'This is not good for health, but it sells a lot of wine,' Ms. Bisel said.
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Samples were taken from the outer -- and mixed -- layers of the tibias, or shinbones, of 46 Herculaneum -- 17 females, 26 males and three teenagers whose sex had not been determined.
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Ms. Bisel also ran comparison samples from contemporary Athens - five males and six females.
'The Athenian means were higher than Herculaneum,' she said. 'The mean lead of mixed layers in Athens was 147 parts per million. Herculaneum was 84 parts per million.
'This is not such a terribly high number. But I had some people who deviated from that wildly. And these were the people who may have had problems with lead.'
Two had very high amounts -- 2,790 and 6,350 parts per million. Six people had levels between 1,000 and 2,000 parts per million.
'I don't really understand completely the mechanism of absorption of lead into bone, but it stands to reason these eight people may have had some problems with leads in their systems.
'Some problems with lead must have existed some of the time for some people,' she said.