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Investigating past lead exposure in bioarchaeological remains with synchrotron X-ray fluorescence and absorption spectroscopy

Faculty Advisor




bioarchaeology, human remains, skeletal tissues, dental tissues, bones, strontium (Sr), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), barium (Ba), synchrotron X-ray

Abstract (summary)

Bioarchaeology, the sub-discipline of archaeology concentrating on human remains, involves the study of skeletal tissues to make inferences about lifeways in the past. Trace metals such as lead (Pb), strontium (Sr), mercury (Hg), and barium (Ba) have a strong affinity for bones and teeth and consequently accumulate in these tissues during different timeframes of an individual's life. Bones, which constantly undergo the process of remodeling, reflect an individual's relatively recent exposure (years to decades) to trace elements [1], whereas dental tissues, which do not remodel, reflect trace element exposure during their formation during childhood. Trace element analysis of archaeological bones and teeth has the potential to provide the bioarchaeologist with insights into past human diet, health, environment, mobility, occupation, social activities, and burial conditions [2]. Lead is historically significant, given the breadth of its use throughout the human past, as well as its toxic health impacts on populations. First exploited by humans as early as the sixth millennium BCE [3], lead has been widely used by humans in paint, ammunition, cosmetics, plumbing, and as a food additive [4] with prominent peaks in lead use occurring in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and following the European Industrial Revolution [4, 5]. As such, lead has been the focus of several previous bioarchaeological studies [6–9]. Methods conventionally used to assess lead in skeletal remains are limited in their ability to discern the nature and timing of lead uptake into bone. This article will review the strides that synchrotron X-ray microbeam techniques have made regarding the analysis of lead in bioarchaeological remains by summarizing key studies and methodological advancements, such as the addition of confocal optics.

Publication Information

Simpson, R., T.L. Varney, T. Swanston, I. Coulthard, and D.M.L. Cooper (2019) Investigating Past Lead Exposure in Bioarchaeological Remains with Synchrotron X-ray Fluorescence and Absorption Spectroscopy. Synchrotron Radiation News 32(6): 11-16. DOI: 10.1080/08940886.2019.1680209


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