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Left: representation of an alpine glacier. (ryszard filipowicz / Adobe stock). Right: 19th-century depiction of St Thomas Becket, showing a sword piercing his head. St Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK. (Cnbrb / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Alpine Glacier Reveals Unlikely Insights Into Murder of Thomas Becket

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Laser scans of an alpine glacier reveal a climate catastrophe in the shadow of England’s Archbishop Thomas Becket’s murder.

A team of researchers using lasers to read the levels of lead pollution in an ice sheet on the Colle Gnifetti alpine glacier in the Swiss/Italian Alps compared their scans with historical English tax records detailing UK lead production. Their results show a drop in AD 1169 followed by a spike in AD 1170, which aligns with the events surrounding Thomas Becket’s murder. When the murderer, King Henry II was desperately trying to regain favor with the pope, and built a swathe of new monasteries, each one requiring several tons of lead.

Ice Scanning Pollution Levels in Medieval England

Professor Christopher Loveluck and colleagues from Nottingham University published their full findings in the journal  Antiquity. This presented their analysis of the ice core sample from Colle Gnifetti showing a drop and then spike in lead smelting from AD 1169–1170, following the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his cathedral in AD 1170.

Map the Colle Gnifetti site of the alpine glacier in proximity to Italy and Switzerland. (Christopher Loveluck / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Map the Colle Gnifetti site of the alpine glacier in proximity to Italy and Switzerland. (Christopher Loveluck / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The be-header, King Henry II , was excommunicated by the pope and therefore, he commissioned the construction of several new monasteries attempting to appease the Church, projects requiring huge amounts of lead piping, roofing and for stained glass windows.

All smelted in Britain, traces of the lead pollution from this process floated across Europe and settled in an 800-year-old section of ice, which the researchers bored out of the Colle Gnifetti glacier in 2013. Dr. Loveluck wrote that in the mid-late 12th century lead pollution was at similar levels as it was in the mid 17th century and in 1890, so our notions of atmospheric pollution starting in the Industrial Revolution “are wrong.”

The Colle Gnifetti mountains where the alpine glacier is found. (Erik de Haan / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Colle Gnifetti mountains where the alpine glacier is found. (Erik de Haan / CC BY-NC 2.0 )

The Density of Modern Science in Deep History

The chosen scientific technique of analysis was “Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry,” which ionizes samples with inductively coupled plasma and subsequently, creates atomic polyatomic ions that can then be detected and measured. In layman’s terms, “by shining a laser on centuries-old ice we’ve learned to read glaciers as we read a book,” said paper coauthor Alexander More of New York's  Long Island University in an article in the Daily Mail .

The lead trapped within individual date layers in the ice core sample present “annual bands,” which can be measured like the rings of a tree offering a map of the environmental conditions at any given time.

Blown in northern winds, dust and pollution from late 12th century England deposited in the Swiss/Italian alpine glacier, which the team of researchers dated to around AD 1170–1220. This is the bracket of time in which Henry II murdered Thomas Becket, a historic event that according to Dr. Loveluck, speaking to the BBC, caused the bloody handed king to “build a lot of major monastic institutions very, very quickly.”

Depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket by the king’s knights. (Joseph Martin Kronheim / Public domain)

Depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket by the king’s knights. (Joseph Martin Kronheim / Public domain )

A Multidisciplinary Collision With Astonishing Conclusions

“Massive amounts of lead were used for roofing of these major monastic complexes,” the scientists wrote in the paper, and the correlations between the pollution trapped in the alpine glacier and the murder of Becket were supported in historical texts, which are currently held at the National Archives in Kew, known as the Pipe Rolls.

Detailing English taxation records, beginning with the reigns of the Anglo-Norman crusader kings: Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and King John , the ice core records mirrored those written in the Pipe Rolls, showing lead levels from the glacier falling, for example, during times of war and rebellion, when lead production was reduced.

This is one of those inspiring instances when contrasting disciplines collide revealing previously out of reach data, atomic lasers and historical texts, detailing actual lead production in Britain, all encased within an ice core deposit, and rightfully so Dr. Loveluck said this was “astonishing.”

The full report is published in Antiquity and can be read at the following link DOI:  https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.202

Top image: Left: representation of an alpine glacier. ( ryszard filipowicz / Adobe stock). Right: 19th-century depiction of St Thomas Becket, showing a sword piercing his head. St Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK. (Cnbrb / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Ashley Cowie

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