Guest Blog: Ancient Dust Busters

Exploring the Archaeology of Air Pollution with Young People

As part of our 50th Anniversary Celebration, we are featuring guest blogs from various researchers and project partners that we have worked with over the years, discussing some of our best research collaborations. Today’s blog post is from Frances Bennett, Interpretation and Engagement Manager for York Archaeological Trust.

How can archaeology develop our understanding of air pollution and its impact on human health? In 2021 and 2022, YAT was a partner in the Ancient Dust Busters public engagement project with Dr Anita Radini and the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, with funding from the Wellcome Trust.

The programme aimed to reach a public audience of young people, families and school groups to share new archaeological research into dental calculus samples from individuals found in Roman contexts in York and elsewhere. By sampling dental calculus – plaque formed in the mouth and surviving on the teeth of skeletons recovered in excavations – deposits of airborne particles can be analysed to give clues about exposure to potential respiratory irritants produced through different occupations practised in the past.

We were personally interested in being involved in the project in our respective fields; Frances, as the Trust’s Interpretation and Learning Manager, was keen to explore innovative ways to engage students with new scientific research into archaeological collections, whereas Giulia, the Trust’s Collections and Archives Manager, was going to be instrumental in adding to the data available by selecting individuals from the Trust’s human bone collection for inclusion in the study.

The results of the study were wide-ranging, with light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy illuminating a range of pollen particles, starches and plant and animal remains in the ancient calculus. Interpretation of the results is ongoing but evidence for climate, diet and potential occupations of the individuals was all recovered.

To explore the public impact of this new study, we then collaborated to produce an online outreach programme to schools and an exhibition at DIG. The outreach programme involved schools in York, Novara (Italy) and Tripoli (Libya) exploring the connection between science and archaeology, and interpreting the complex but contemporary issues of air quality and human health. For the exhibition, our multi-disciplinary approach also saw us working directly with the School of Dentistry at the University of Leeds and staff at the University of York’s Palaeohub to further explore the link between research in public health, environmental sciences and archaeology.