Should Roman artifacts be sacrificed to discover secrets of the universe?

The search for the fundamental particles that make up the universe has raised a question that currently lacks any formal guidelines: Should some cultural artifacts be sacrificed in the name of science?

Elena Perez-Alvaro of the University of Birmingham has questioned the ethics of allowing 120 lead ingots from a 2000-year-old Roman shipwreck be used for cutting-edge physics research.

"The fact that underwater heritage was legally - or not - excavated and recovered by a museum or a company and afterwards sold or transferred for its complete destruction in [a] scientific experiment for 'the benefit of humankind,' introduces a whole new legal aspect to the treatment and protection of this heritage," she wrote in an article recently published in the scientific journal Rosetta.

The Roman lead was discovered 20 years ago in an ancient shipwreck off the Sardinian coast.

The National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari in Sardinia provided the lead to a physics lab in Italy known as the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE) in 2010. The following year, the lead was used in the search for a special nuclear process named neutrinoless double beta decay.

The Roman lead was melted into a 3-centimetre-thick lead lining, but the parts of the bricks that contained inscriptions were preserved.

The lab is already buried under the Gran Sasso mountain to shield it from cosmic rays, but needed the lead to block other sources of natural radiation. Lead is often used as shielding material due to its high density and other properties. The cutting-edge experiment, however, required special lead.

Freshly mined lead contains unstable isotopes, which makes it slightly radioactive. These isotopes slowly decay over time into more stable substances. After spending thousands of years at the bottom of the sea, the Roman lead was radiation free, making it the best shielding material researchers found.

"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," Perez-Alvaro explained to SINC.

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

The issue highlights a murky area of international law and an ethical dilemma.

Sunken artifacts are protected by UNESCO's 2001 Convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage, Perez-Alvaro wrote. But the convention only addresses the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage -- not their use in scientific experiments.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea calls for underwater artifacts to be "be preserved or disposed of for the benefit of mankind as a whole" -- which raises the question of whether preserving history or advancing science is more beneficial for humanity.

"The use of underwater archaeological artifacts as a source for scientific purposes may be seen as ‘for the benefit of humankind ’, since it is undertaken with the purpose of increasing mankind’s knowledge of the universe," she wrote. "However, preservation of these underwater archaeological artifacts and sites for future generations may also be ‘for the benefit of mankind.'"

Perez-Alvaro concluded that archaeologists and physicists needed to work out an agreement on the use of cultural artifacts.

"Compromise does not equal defeat; sometimes, it is the only path to success. Guidelines are necessary ‘for the benefit of humankind.'"

[Roman lead ingots from the Bou Ferrer shipwreck courtesy of Jose A Moya - UA]