Lead ingots at the Wells and Mendip Museum.
Rodw/Wikimedia Commons Lead ingots at the Wells and Mendip Museum.

Scientists have recently been touting the superior properties of products developed by Roman engineers. Despite today's supposedly superior technologies, the impressive characteristics of Roman materials such as maritime concrete or dichroic glass continue to amaze contemporary researchers. Some scientists have even gone so far as to incorporate actual Roman-made materials in new technological pursuits—sparking controversy among archaeologists and historians.

The Information and Scientific News Service (SINC) reported that researchers of dark matter, the mysterious substance that presumably comprises a quarter of our universe, have been using Roman lead ingots to construct neutrino detectors. Scientists working at the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events in Italy as well as the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search project obtained these ingots from sunken Roman vessels near Sardinia and France.

Why go to such trouble to use a Roman material—which was presumably intended for use in plumbing and ammunition—rather than a contemporary version?

"Roman lead is essential for conducting these experiments because it offers purity and such low levels of radioactivity – all the more so the longer it has spent underwater – which current methods for producing this metal cannot reach," University of Birmingham scientist Elena Perez-Alvaro told SINC.

The resulting dilemma, which Perez-Alvaro discussed in a Rosetta article, concerns the use of archaeologically-significant artifacts for today's science. Indeed, which purpose has the greater value—the preservation of history or the advancement of scientific knowledge?

"Underwater archaeologists see destruction of heritage as a loss of our past, our history, whilst physicists support basic research to look for answers we do not yet have," Perez-Alvaro told SINC.

Although this controversy remains unresolved, it could lead to new exciting collaborations between scientists and archaeologists, allowing them to probe the history of materials from both technical and historical perspectives. Such a multidisciplinary effort should also consider the future life of these materials—for example, the ingots might be entirely salvageable after the neutrino detectors have reached the end of their useful lives. Then, once Roman engineering has helped to solve the enigma of dark matter, the ingots could fulfill yet another significant purpose.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.