Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ancient Rome and Particle Physics

"Ancient Rome" and "Particle Physics" appear to be options in the game, "One of these is not like the other..."  Believe it or not, these two worlds have collided over the responsibility of each with regards to the use of material culture.

Yesterday, an article detailing the debate appeared in several online publications.  The debate concerns Ancient Roman shipwrecks that contain stores of iron ingots--a unitary means of transporting metals in the ancient world (think bar of gold).  The iron ingots of two shipwrecks in particular have been plundered by particle physicists for a unique reason.  Modern lead contains Pb-210, an isotope of Uranium.  The ancient lead, because of its submersion in water for nearly 2,000 years has largely escaped contamination.  This more heavily purified lead creates a more stable environment when it is used to detect the reaction of atoms when they are smashed together.  The article can be read in more detail here, but the contents it discusses raises an important archaeological question.  What is the archaeologists job in preserving material culture?

If the experiments being performed in the supercolliders of the United States and Italy have the potential to help people in the future, could the material culture warrant destruction?  The answer to this question is yes but also no.  Archaeology in itself is a destructive endeavor.  Once an artifact is removed from the ground its initial context has been ruined.  You can never dig the same dirt twice.

If what the scientists are discovering with their experiments in the particle accelerator could aid future benefit to humanity, then yes, I believe limited destruction is warranted.  Full-scale destruction, however, would rob future archaeologists of learning from these shipwrecks.  If these wrecks are tourist attractions, such wide-spread destruction could diminish an industry within the area, immediately affecting real people.

Hopefully an agreement can be reached in which important research can continue with limited impact on the material culture.