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NWO funding for study Lisette Kootker on human mobility in the Roman Netherlands

17 July 2023
Earth scientist Lisette Kootker is one of the 61 researchers who will start a promising research project with the NWO Open Competition SGW XS funding. Kootker investigates how to research human mobility more accurately on archaeological human remains, by adding the lead isotope system. Focusing on identifying the primary source of lead intake in Roman individuals and then assessing the applicability of lead isotopes for tracing human mobility in Roman times.

Geological substrate
Did the presence of the Romans attract people to the region and stimulate trade and mobility, or do we see the opposite and an effective border? This is an important theme within the NWO NWA funded research “Constructing the Limes” to which this XS project connects. How human populations moved is an important factor in understanding the development of society over time. Human mobility in the past can now be partially answered using scientific techniques such as isotope analysis, which looks at the chemical composition of an ancient sample.

With the help of lead isotope analysis, Kootker hopes to determine whether the lead isotope composition in the human remains can be linked to the geological subsurface, the consumed (local) diet, which may be used to research mobility. Or, that it is directly related to the use of pots and pans containing lead, so that it cannot be used as a measurable proxy for mobility.

Pots and pans in Roman times
Isotope analysis is based on the concept 'you are what you eat' and that natural isotopic variations in the environment act as a fingerprint of specific regions. Chemical elements are absorbed into our bodies through the food we consume and stored in our skeletons and teeth. As a result, unique information can be found about the geological location where an individual spent their childhood. In practice, however, it is challenging to accurately pinpoint a geological origin location because a geology is rarely unique, which means that different geographic areas around the world can have the same isotope ratios. This problem can be partially addressed by combining different isotope systems, such as that of strontium with lead. Lead isotopes vary widely in surface environments and may therefore be important in determining the region of origin.

Normally, lead should only be present in our food in very small amounts, but during the Roman period, lead-containing metal was extensively used for items such as cups, bowls, and water pipes. The source of lead in human remains, whether geologically through food consumption or anthropogenic through contamination of lead-containing objects, has not yet been systematically investigated. The findings of this XS project determine whether lead isotope analysis is applicable for studying human mobility in the Roman period, in particular in the Netherlands. Additionally, it has not yet been proven whether lead isotope analysis can be successfully applied to cremated bone material. This is also something that is being investigated in a small-scale experimental setup.

This NWO XS project offers the opportunity to strengthen the position within 'scientific archaeology' both nationally and internationally and to explore a new direction within Dutch isotope archaeology. In addition, the ultramodern Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory (NIGEL: 'Netherlands state-of-the-art Isotope GEochemistry Laboratory') will be opened at VU Amsterdam in 2024, doubling the capacity of the current laboratory and increasing the accessibility of this type of research for archaeology is enlarged. By investigating human mobility and the provenance of metal artifacts on a larger scale using scientific techniques, we can rewrite or even write down parts of our history for the first time.