Alpine glacier reveals lead pollution from C12th Britain as bad as Industrial Revolution

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

“The mid-late 12th century had the same levels of lead pollution as we see in the mid 17th century and even in 1890, so our notions of atmospheric pollution starting in the industrial revolution are wrong.” Prof. Christopher Loveluck, University of Nottingham

Air pollution from lead mines in C12th Britain was as bad as it was during the Industrial Revolution and exactly maps the comings and goings of England’s Kings, a new world-first study has shown.

Climate change scientists, historians and archaeologists from the Universities of Nottingham, Harvard and Maine used ultra-high precision laser technology to analyse the contents of an 800-year-old section of ice, part of a 72-metre-long core bored from a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps.

Pipe Roll © National Archives

The research shows how traces of lead pollution from mines in the UK, in particular the Peak District, directly mirror historical ‘parchment roll’ records of lead production in the region between 1170 and 1216. The work was led by Nottingham’s Prof. Christopher Loveluck and is now published in Antiquity.

The catastrophic C14th pandemic, the Black Death, was previously revealed in the ice core according to an earlier paper, published in 2017. The scientists now say this begs the question – will future scientists be able to ‘see’ the current COVID-19 pandemic in the layers of ice that are yet to be laid down on that same glacier or polar ice if it survives in the centuries to come?

© Nicole Spaulding

The ice core was bored out of the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Monte Rosa Massif on the Swiss-Italian border in 2013. It is super-compacted and is made up of invisible layers containing chemical elements that form an annual chemical fingerprint, analogous to an annual tree ring.  Cutting edge atmospheric modelling shows that these elements were deposited by the winds coming from the north west carrying dust and pollution from the UK.

The core is the subject of an ongoing collaborative project led by Prof. Paul Mayewski of the Climate Change Institute-University of Maine and Prof. Michael McCormick, Department of History, Harvard University. It is yielding an unparalleled year-by-year picture of over 2,000 years of climate-related, environmental, economic and political history.

Heavy metal detecting

In a world-first, the new research shows that the annual pollution levels reaching the Alps between 1170 and 1216 mirror the royal records of annual lead and silver production in England, and the impact of wars and major building projects by the Angevin kings, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and John. This provides the only instance to date when the environmental impact of a medieval macro-economy, and political influences upon it, have been fully demonstrable on an annual basis (with over 100 measurements of lead pollution per year between 1170 and 1220). 

Fig by C. Loveluck and A. More

People have mined lead-silver ores for centuries to use in coins, roofs, water pipes and even paint but it is a toxic metal that, even at very low levels of exposure, can reduce brain function and result in lifelong health complications. The impact of such long-term pollution on our lived environment at a western European level has barely been made clear. Until now.

The laser technique used to analyse the annual layers in an ice core for the first time is called Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry. It allows highly sensitive measurement of the presence of chemical elements like lead and can take 50,000 readings in a single metre of ice core.

The team’s intensive work on a specific portion of the core laid down in the middle ages shows that the Colle Gnifetti glacier offers up an unprecedented detailed timeline of the environmental impact of British lead mining and smelting on western Europe. It exactly maps the calendar of historical events that occurred during the Angevin Empire from 1170-1216, from the death of Thomas Becket to Magna Carta – showing how lead production fell during times of war and rebellion, and in interregnums between monarchs.

© Nicole Spaulding

Having established from atmospheric-modelling, archaeological and historical research that the Alpine lead pollution signal was predominantly British at the highest point of medieval pollution in the later 12th century, team deliberately chose the section of the core that dated from c. 1167 to 1220 so they could explore any matches between  lead content in the ice with the annual historical records of lead production in the English taxation records, known as the Pipe Rolls, for the Anglo-Norman (Angevin) Kings, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and John, housed in the National Archives at Kew.

‘Astonishing correlation’

Professor Christopher Loveluck, from the University of Nottingham’s Department of Classics and Archaeology, said: “Our work on the Colle Gnifetti glacier has shown the true potential of this fantastic new laser technique, in conjunction with historical and archaeological records. The correlation between evidence of lead production in Britain in the ice core deposits and the tax paid on lead mines is astonishing! We see direct associations between production levels and the workings of government at the time, for example, lead taxation and lead production plummets in the year when a king dies before they are succeeded by another one. This is because medieval governments shut down in the interregnum. The ice core shows precisely when one king died, and lead production fell and then rose again with the next monarch. We can see the deaths of King Henry II, Richard Lionheart and King John there in the ancient ice.

Professor Christopher Loveluck, University of Nottingham

“Importantly, our results show that the 12th century has the same levels of lead pollution as we see in the mid 17th century and even in 1890 so our notions of atmospheric pollution starting in the industrial revolution are wrong. Then the ice core shows a rise with lead petrol in the motor car, and a big fall when lead is banned from fuel in the 1970s.

“For us here in Nottingham, the big story is that 75% of that record in the ice core in the Alps is a direct mirror of Peak District lead production. In that period, the biggest mining areas in Britain were around Wirksworth and Castleton in the Peak District and the mine of Carlisle which was actually based in the central Pennines.”

Professor Michael McCormick, Chair of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard, added: “It proves largely that those ancient hand-inscribed British historical records, the Pipe Rolls, are right about the patterns of lead production. Those particulates from all those years ago embedded deep in the ice core are our proof, thanks to this new technology.”

Professor Michael McCormick, Harvard University

Assistant Professor Alexander More, of Long island University, New York, Harvard University and the Climate Change Institute, Maine, said: “By shining a laser on centuries-old ice we’ve learned to read glaciers as we read a book. We’re doing both, and much more, to shed light on the economic and health implications of such extensive lead pollution in our environment.”

Assistant Professor Alexander More, Harvard/Climate Change Institute, Maine

The next big project for this leading international interdisciplinary research team is to look at ultra-high-resolution climate change. Alongside the pollution evidence, the ice also contains evidence of short- and longer-term climate events and the team hopes to be able to paint a much more detailed picture of volcanic eruptions and weather events dating back 2000 years.

The research is funded by Arcadia, a charitable foundation of Dr. Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

Story credits

For more information please contact Professor Christopher Loveluck, Department of Classics and Archaeology, University of Nottingham via email or Emma Rayner, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Arts on +44 (0)115 951 5793 or email

Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager, Faculty of Arts
Phone: 0115 748 4413

Notes to editors:

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