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Roman Ruins and Dark matter

Underwater cultural heritage comes second to science research


A debate is heating up in scientific circles regarding the use of lead bricks from ancient shipwrecks for use in experiments in particle physics.  The question is whether destruction of artefacts is justified for the purpose of scientific research.

The lead bricks found in shipwrecks have low radioactivity levels and are therefore ideal for use in particle physics.  Scientists from the CDMS dark matter detection project in Minnesota (USA) and from the CUORE neutrino observatory at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy have begun to use them, but archaeologists have argued that cultural heritage should not be sacrificed for the advancement of science.

So far, experiments relating to the study of neutrinos and dark matter, have resulted in hundreds of lead ingots being removed from a 2,000-year-old Roman vessel located off the coast of Sardinia and an 18 th century ship wrecked on the French coast.

Particle physicists have argued that they have found a unique material for research on neutrinos and dark matter. "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," said Elena Perez-Alvaro from the University of Birmingham

"Lead extracted today is naturally contaminated with the isotope Pb-210, which prevents it from being used as shielding for particle detectors," adds physicist Fernando González Zalba from the University of Cambridge.

However, for marine archaeologists, extracting materials from ancient shipwrecks results in the destruction of heritage and a loss of history.  They are calling for legislation to at least regulate the use of ancient relics for science.

By April Holloway

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