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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

An Ice Core Reveals How Profoundly The Black Death Changed Medieval Society

In the year of the Lord 1347, the Black Death arrived in Europe. Introduced by merchants coming from Asia, the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread quickly. Following trading routes, in just six years this incurable disease killed 25 million people, one-third of the population on the continent. Entire villages were wiped out, some cities lost 80% of their citizens. The plague was followed by famine. Thomas Basinus (1412-1491), bishop of Èvreux and later historian, notes that ‘many peasants fled or died so that many fields remained uncultivated or there was nobody left to care.’ In the cities, overpopulation and poor hygiene helped to spread the plague, rivers were used to dispose of the many corpses, contaminating the water. Riots of desperate people were common, like in 1323 in Flanders and in 1358 in France. Many believed, as one witness testified, that the end of the world had arrived.

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The Triumph of Death is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562 it was inspired by the waves of the Black Death plaguing the 14th century.

The dramatically reduced population had, however, a surprisingly beneficial effect on the environment. The pollution of the air dropped to a historic low.

Analyzing a 236 feet long ice core recovered from a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps, a team of scientists from Harvard University was able to reconstruct the concentration of lead in the air over Europe for the last 2,000 years. The research with the title ‘Next-generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,’ was published in the open access journal GeoHealth.

Atmospheric circulation transported the lead from the lowlands into the Alps, where it was washed out from the atmosphere by rain and snow. The snow, accumulating mostly during winter, partially melts and changes over the summer into ice, forming single layers, as found in a glacier. By analyzing the concentration of elements in the single layers, it is possible to create an annual record of the atmospheric deposition. One significant spike can be found around 1349-1353 when the measured concentration of lead dropped far below the average value of 10^2 nanogram of lead per liter air. Even today, after the introduction of unleaded fuel in the 1980s, the concentration of lead in the air is still 10 times higher as in 1350.

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Reconstructed lead concentration in the last 2,000 years and most important mining districts. Image Source & Credit MORE et al. 2017. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In medieval times, lead was used for roofing of large buildings such as cathedrals, water pipes, but especially for dishes and glazed pottery valued by the rich. The most important lead ore is galena. As galena also contains silver, it was widely mined (silver, lead, and copper were the most important metals in medieval Europa). The most productive mines were found on the British island, South Italy, the Harz mountains with Freiberg in Saxony and Kutna Hora in Bohemia. We know of contemporary records of the silver medieval monarchs received as royalties, that the mines of  Freiberg and Kutna Hora alone provided 20 tons of silver and 100 tons of lead per year. To get this amount,  it was necessary to mine and process an almost 2,000 times larger quantity of rocks and ore. The Black Death impacted mining in two ways. The miners and workers died in great number, and many mines were abandoned. As the population died, including the rich people, the demand for lead also dropped.

The Black Death was so deadly, mining for lead virtually stopped and no lead dust, coming from both mining as smelting, was dispersed into the environment. As the atmosphere became cleaner, the concentration of lead deposited in the glaciers of the Alps dropped.

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Entrance to a medieval mine in the Alps, dated around 1530.

The Black Death had a disastrous impact and yet helped to create modern Europe. Plagued previously by overpopulation and poverty, Europe could reinvent itself after the Black Death made the old political system obsolete. Many peasants at the time were virtually slaves, owned by the rich landlords. As the landlords were gone, many people were free to choose where and when to settle. The surviving landlords, in desperate need of somebody to take care of their properties,  agreed to lower the taxes and more privileges were granted to farmers. Wages everywhere increased, as healthy workers were rare, and the land became cheaper. Many previously poor people managed to achieve some wealth. Authorities even tried to forbid the use of fur in clothing, a privilege reserved only to the aristocracy in former times, but now common. Political and social independence was now possible and a new class rose from the ashes of the old society — the free citizen. A new human being for a new epoch, as the Renaissance was later seen by historians. However, even after 1353, the Black Death didn’t completely disappear. Almost once in a decade, a smaller outbreak was reported, but improved hygiene in the cities, quarantine procedures, and an acquired genetic immunity of the survivors reduced the risk of infection significantly.

This societal development can also be seen in the studied ice core. Just some years after the plague of 1347-1353, the concentration of lead significantly increased, approaching values seen before the Black Death. The European mining industry experienced a boom in the 15th and 16th century, testified also by many active mines found now also in the Alps. Only recently the concentration of lead started to drop again, in response to efforts to ban this toxic element from daily use and improved environmental regulations. However, it is still an important metal, mostly used for batteries in the automobile industry.

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Ancient Roman town of Ucetia discovered in France

Vue aérienne de la zone 1 en cours de fouille, avec de gauche à droite le bâtiment à mosaïque antique, la rue et les habitations, mis au jour à Uzès (Gard), 2017.

For the first time in over a thousand years, archeologists have laid eyes on the ancient Roman town of Ucetia, which is decked out with some surprisingly well-preserved mosaics.

The discovery by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) was made near modern-day Uzès in the south of France during the construction of a school. The 4,000-square-meter (43,056-square-foot) site contains artifacts ranging from the Roman Republic era (1st century BCE) to the late antiquity (7th century), right through to the Middle Ages.

Nettoyage du pavement de la salle mosaïquée antique découverte à Uzès (Gard), 2017.

The town’s existence was first hinted at when researchers found an inscription saying Ucetia on a stone slab in nearby Nîmes. A few isolated fragments and mosaic pieces suggested the site of the mysterious Roman town, but it remained hidden until INRAP started to dig beneath the surface.

“Prior to our work, we knew that there had been a Roman city called Ucetia only because its name was mentioned on stela [inscripted stone slab] in Nimes, alongside 11 other names of Roman towns in the area,” Philippe Cayn of INRAP told IBTimes.

One of the main findings was a 250-square-meter (2,690-square-foot) area that the researchers believe was a public building, based on the fact it was once lined with grand columns. This building also features two large multi-colored mosaics with patterns, symbols, and animals, including an owl, duck, eagle, and fawn. Preliminary research says this building stood strong until the end of the 1st century CE.

Angle du décor du pavement mosaïqué antique, formé de motifs géométriques (postes, chevrons, damiers) découvert à Uzès (Gard), 2017.

Cayn added: “This kind of elaborate mosaic pavement is often found in the Roman world in the 1st and 2nd centuries, but this one dates back to about 200 years before that, so this is surprising.”

Another important discovery was a 500-square-meter (5,381-square-foot) urban dwelling, which contains mosaic decorations of geometrical patterns and dolphins. This building also contains several large dolia, large wine vessels, that suggests wine was produced here.

The archeologists believe there is still a lot of work to do and hope to continue their research on the site over the coming years. The site will be part of a peer-reviewed study once all the necessary groundwork is done and dusted.

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