Sediments in Gulf of Naples reveal impact on Roman water distribution after Vesuvius eruption

May 17, 2016 by Bob Yirka report
Painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner (between 1817 and 1820) Vesuvius in Eruption, watercolor. Credit: Yale Center for British Art.

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers with members from France, the U.S., the U.K. and Italy has found evidence of disruptions to the water delivery system in the area around Naples after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes their testing of sediment cores taken from the harbor at Naples, what they found and what their study has revealed about the history of the area.

To bring water to cities, the early Romans built vast waterworks systems using aqueducts and lead pipes—the water that was delivered, unbeknownst to the Romans, contained some amount of lead which in addition to making its way into the bodies of those who drank it, also made it into the ground or other via sewage. In the case of the cities and towns around Naples, sewage was piped to certain locations where it was dumped directly into the harbor which resulted in sediment build up, some of which contained lead particles. Modern researches studying can analyze the different layers of sediment and note the different amounts of lead in it and the differences in the types of lead, which can offer information about the amount of water brought into the system, and in this case, the changes to the system that came about.

In studying their sediment core samples taken from the harbor, the researchers found marked changes in immediately after Mount Vesuvius erupted, likely, they suggest, because the eruption either clogged pipes, or destroyed some of the system. Differences in , they noted suggested lead pipes had been brought in from different locations to replace those that had been damaged. They noted also that the original water system had remained in place for approximately 15 years after the eruption before it was finally replaced. The team also found evidence of a continually expanding water system until approximately the fifth century, when natural disasters and invasions led to a sharp decline in upgrades.

The researchers suggest their techniques could be used in other parts of the world, not just the area once covered by the Roman Empire—to better understand population changes, or other events that had an impact on the people that lived there.

Explore further: Lead in 'tap-water' in ancient Rome up to 100 times more than local spring waters

More information: Hugo Delile et al. A lead isotope perspective on urban development in ancient Naples, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1600893113

Abstract
The influence of a sophisticated water distribution system on urban development in Roman times is tested against the impact of Vesuvius volcanic activity, in particular the great eruption of AD 79, on all of the ancient cities of the Bay of Naples (Neapolis). Written accounts on urbanization outside of Rome are scarce and the archaeological record sketchy, especially during the tumultuous fifth and sixth centuries AD when Neapolis became the dominant city in the region. Here we show that isotopic ratios of lead measured on a well-dated sedimentary sequence from Neapolis' harbor covering the first six centuries CE have recorded how the AD 79 eruption was followed by a complete overhaul of Neapolis' water supply network. The Pb isotopic signatures of the sediments further reveal that the previously steady growth of Neapolis' water distribution system ceased during the collapse of the fifth century AD, although vital repairs to this critical infrastructure were still carried out in the aftermath of invasions and volcanic eruptions.

Related Stories

Water plus magma = increased explosivity

February 10, 2016

When water interacts with magma, it can dramatically increase the explosivity of the eruption. However, water in the eruption cloud can also increase the rate at which the particles aggregate into larger clumps, allowing ...

The chemistry behind Flint's water crisis

February 17, 2016

When the city of Flint switched drinking water sources in 2014, it triggered a health emergency as startlingly high levels of lead turned up in the water. An article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine ...

Recommended for you

Six degrees of separation: Why it is a small world after all

October 19, 2017

It's a small world after all - and now science has explained why. A study conducted by the University of Leicester and KU Leuven, Belgium, examined how small worlds emerge spontaneously in all kinds of networks, including ...

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

October 19, 2017

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that ...

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.