A detailed record of historical lead (Pb) pollution from a peat bog in Serbia provides a unique view on the extent and timing of Balkan mining and metallurgy. Evidence of the earliest European environmental pollution is followed by large-scale and sustained increases in the amount of anthropogenically derived Pb after 600 BCE, through the Roman/Byzantine periods, and into the medieval period. Occasional evidence of drops in pollution output reflects the disruptive socioeconomic impact of periods of turmoil. Our data show a trend significantly different to records in western Europe, where Pb pollution decreases dramatically after the collapse of the Roman Empire. These results suggest metal-rich southeastern Europe should be considered a more major player in environmental metal pollution through time.


The Balkans are considered the birthplace of mineral resource exploitation and metalworking in Europe. However, since knowledge of the timing and extent of metallurgy in southeastern Europe is largely constrained by discontinuous archaeological findings, the long-term environmental impact of past mineral resource exploitation is not fully understood. Here, we present a high-r****ution and continuous geochemical record from a peat bog in western Serbia, providing a clear indication of the extent and magnitude of environmental pollution in this region, and a context in which to place archaeological findings. We observe initial evidence of anthropogenic lead (Pb) pollution during the earliest part of the Bronze Age [∼3,600 years before Common Era (BCE)], the earliest such evidence documented in European environmental records. A steady, almost linear increase in Pb concentration after 600 BCE, until ∼1,600 CE is observed, documenting the development in both sophistication and extent of southeastern European metallurgical activity throughout Antiquity and the medieval period. This provides an alternative view on the history of mineral exploitation in Europe, with metal-related pollution not ceasing at the fall of the western Roman Empire, as was the case in western Europe. Further comparison with other Pb pollution records indicates the amount of Pb deposited in the Balkans during the medieval period was, if not greater, at least similar to records located close to western European mining regions, suggestive of the key role the Balkans have played in mineral resource exploitation in Europe over the last 5,600 years