What would you say if I suggested that one day, King Tutankhamun's burial mask may need to be melted down to help meet our demand for gold? Would you be horrified? I imagine that most people would. Why would such a priceless treasure need to be destroyed to provide gold for our everyday needs? At this point in time it seems an almost impossible concept, but it is one we are asking visitors to think about in our What Use Are Metals To Me? temporary exhibit.
King Tut's mask in an extreme example, but the idea of seeing artefacts as a resource of metal is not such a crazy notion. As our global finite resources become more limited, as a society we must find more ways to effectively recycle items, thereby reclaiming the metals (and other materials) from existing products.
With over forty percent of the world's gold supply currently tied up in gold bullion, let's hope that should we ever need it, this gold would be used before having to resort to melting down priceless artefacts. But for a group of archaeologists studying Ancient Rome, they are unfortunately facing the prospect of losing some artefacts for the purpose of being used as a metal resource.
Two thousand years ago, Roman ships used lead for ballast and anchors. When ships sank, this lead was carried to the bottom of the sea, where it has stayed. In that time, its natural radioactivity has dissipated, leaving behind a very pure form of lead. Modern lead on the other hand is around one thousand times more radioactive.
This pure lead is ideal for building shields for dark matter detectors deep within the earth. The physicists in charge of these detectors are keen to be using this Ancient Roman lead. Understandably, the historians studying the shipwrecks are keen to preserve the lead artefacts in order to help study this ancient civilization, along with its global trade routes. Some lead has been agreeably transferred, but historians are fearful of for-profit salvaging operations springing up which would wipe out any chance for study before the lead is sold for use elsewhere.
This story was published in late 2013 and we have not seen any updates on whether or not a resolution has been found. It would seem that dialogue may bring this stand off to an acceptable solution. But looking at the bigger picture, how many more times might this happen as we move through the next few decades or centuries. Will artefacts become viable resources of metals, either for science or for manufacturing? And if so, which way would you vote.....artefact or resource?
Header image: ddenisen (D. Denisenkov) via Wikicommons