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Sediments Reveal Alexandria's Hidden History

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May 11, 2006 —Traces of pollutant lead found in harbor sediments have revealed that Alexander the Great did not found the Egyptian city of Alexandria – he just rebranded it.

One of antiquity’s most opulent economic and cultural centers, Alexandria is named after the Macedonian emperor Alexander the Great, who was believed to have ordered its construction on the western branch of the Nile River in 331 B.C.

But new geochemical  data, published by  Alain Véron from the Paul Cézanne University in Aix-en-Provence, France, and colleagues in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters, revealed that this part of the Nile was settled 4,500 years ago, more than two millennia before Alexander's arrival.

The find supports the description in ancient texts of a pre-Hellenistic settlement named Rhakotis in the area where Alexandria stands today.

Véron made the discovery by measuring variations of lead concentration in a mud core from Alexandria's ancient harbor.

“This non-archaeological approach has proved to be a powerful tool to the characterization of ancient human occupation,” Véron told Discovery News.

Indeed, lead contamination can point to intense human activity. Lead was used in plumbing, glass making, fishing, building, and ship building.

Radio-carbon dating from seashell fragments found in the core showed peaks of lead contamination in Alexandria during the Egyptian Old Kingdom between 2686 and 2181 B.C., and again during the Iron Age, from 1000 to 800 B.C. at the end of the prosperous Ramses dynasties.

“These findings evidence thriving pre-Hellenistic settlements in Alexandria," the researchers concluded. "It would indeed be paradoxical to assume that such a locally unique and geologically endowed site — an island breakwater sheltering a large marine bay on the extreme margin of the Nile Delta — did not attract societies prior to Alexander."

The absence of any significant pollutant lead between 800 B.C. and Alexander’s arrival may indicate a decline of the Egyptian empire during the Nubian, Assyrian, and Persian invasions, Véron and colleagues said.

Lead levels rocketed again around 330 B.C. when Alexander the Great arrived, and were higher by the time of the Roman empire some 400 years later.

“The study by Véron and his colleagues illustrates the power of combining state-of-the art geochemical analyses with rigorous historical research to reveal new information on human development and industry,” Russell Flegal, professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Discovery News.


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Contributers: Rossella Lorenzi
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