• Reading Level 5
Science | History

Ice reveals mysteries behind medieval murder

Is our history written in the air? Scientists have dug up evidence in the Swiss Alps that shows how the death of an archbishop in the 12th Century led to a drop in medieval air pollution. Breaking news! Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been brutally murdered in his cathedral by four knights acting on behalf of the king of England. This was the gruesome story that shocked medieval Europe 850 years ago. The Pope excommunicated the king, Henry II, and made Thomas Becket a saint. Appalled by what had been done in his name, the king did penance and walked barefoot to Canterbury, his monks whipping him as he went. And now, a new discovery in the Colle Gnifetti glacierA mass of very slowly moving snow and ice. Experts believe that at their fullest extent, during the Ice Age, glaciers covered 30% of the Earth's surface. in the Swiss-Italian Alps sheds new light on the full impact of this political assassination. Scientists have used highly sensitive lasers to examine tiny slices of ice that froze during the reign of Henry II. Trapped there is a record of the air pollution in Europe during the middle ages. We think of air pollution as a modern problem. But in the 12th Century, leadA grey metal that can be poisonous to humans.  mining in northern England produced toxic air that blew across Europe and left traces of lead in the glacial ice. This metal was used in the roofs and windows of the finest medieval buildings. So, high levels of air pollution give historians a snapshot of an industrious and prosperous country. They compared the rise and fall in pollution with historical accounts and discovered that, in 1170, there was a sharp drop in the levels of lead in the air. The same year that Thomas Becket was slain in Canterbury cathedral. His death horrified Europe and plunged England into a political and economic crisis. Taxes went unpaid; the mines fell silent. And the air cleared above the Colle Gnifetti glacier. Ten years later, King Henry II was repairing his damaged reputation with the church by paying for the construction of monastic buildings, all needing lead for their roofs and stained glass windows. Sure enough, the ice record shows lead pollution soared during those years. Scientists are hailing it as an incredible discovery. As well as Becket's death, the pollution levels show other historical events and political crises. The archaeologist Christopher Loveluck says, "We can see the deaths of King Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and King John there, in the ancient ice." So, is our history written in the ice and in the air? Silent witness Some say, yes, history is everywhere - if we know where to look. Long before we started putting plastic in the oceans and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, humans were leaving their mark on the environment. Frozen in the ice is the trace of 12th-Century air that can tell a story of murder, religion, and the rise and fall of kings. Others are less sure. This is just one clue, one piece of evidence, that forms part of a bigger narrative. We can only make sense of the traces of lead in the glacier because of the rich historical record from the period. These written accounts tell us the full story and, without them, we wouldn't know what these new discoveries mean. KeywordsGlacier - A mass of very slowly moving snow and ice. Experts believe that at their fullest extent, during the Ice Age, glaciers covered 30% of the Earth's surface.

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