The True Steel of the Ancestors

Above-ground atomic explosions and reactor leaks during the past century have produced a pretty funny atmosphere full of exotic heavy isotopes. In radiocarbon calibration this error source is called “bomb radiocarbon”. A few years ago it was suggested that a person’s age might be determined through looking at the amount of various isotopes in some bodily tissue (was it the eye’s lens?) and cross-referencing it with the historic data on spikes and troughs in the abundance of various isotopes.

Now the always readworthy Chris Catling tells the readers of Current Archaeology #265 (April) of another way that our sloppy ways with fissile material impact our lives – our cultural heritage, specifically!

“Metal theft doesn’t just take place on dry land; law abiding divers have been reporting an increase in theft from the wrecks of HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, sunk by a U-boat in the North Sea on 22 September 1914 with the loss of 1,459 lives. … apparently the steel structure of the ships … [T]he amount of radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere has increased, and these get into steel, making it weakly radioactive when air is blown into the furnace …

Some forms of scientific and medical equipment (such as Geiger counters and radiation-detecting body scanners) need what is known as “low-background steel“, the chief source of which is naval vessels constructed prior to 1945 and protected from contamination by the North Sea …

(pp. 46-47)


  1. #1 Tech Support
    March 13, 2012

    Well, The age of many mammals are estimated by counting growth layers in tooth section..yet validation of age estimation techniques using free ranging mammals has been problematic..

  2. #2 Birger Johansson
    March 13, 2012

    “Statue, chapels and animal mummies found in Egypt” No major problems dating artefacts from Egypt.

    -Architect Frank Gehry meets Ctulhu, goes insane.

  3. #3 Tobias
    March 13, 2012

    The radioactive trace of the overground testing has been used to determine how old specific cells in the human body are and thus determine what type of cells can be renewed after development. Very cool to be able to use the cold war for modern research. Here is one link.

  4. #4 Birger Johansson
    March 15, 2012

    How do they lift significant amounts of steel from the wrecks to the surface without being spotted by authorities?
    — — — — — — — — —
    (OT) “Mystery human fossils put spotlight on China”
    A Chinese “Hobbit” analogue?

  5. #5 Sandgroper
    March 15, 2012

    Inflatable balloon thingies.

    Thanks for the fossil story, Birger – nice one.

  6. #6 Birger Johansson
    March 16, 2012

    (OT, skepticism) “Swedish church’s new recruitment ploy: wine” “We have no special events for people in their forties and so we thought that it was a good opportunity”
    -Looks fairly harmless to me. Plus, it goes against the Islamic brand of fundamentalism.
    The truly sacrilegous part of it is that during wine testing they spit out the wine!

    (BTW, I assume it is only during the last century that non-alcoholic water has been safe to drink, unless you fancy dying in cholera. Thus accounting for the ubiquitous use of alchohol in various rituals)

  7. #7 John Massey
    March 17, 2012

    #6 – Yeah.

    Hence accounting for the traditional Chinese belief that a woman who has given birth should not wash afterwards.

    Before my daughter was born, my wife and I attended pre-natal classes conducted by a wonderful tall angular Cantonese head obstetrics nurse (with whom I am still happily in contact more than 21 years after the event), who said “Ladies, if you intend not to wash after you have given birth, go to another hospital. The village well is no longer polluted, and if you give birth in this hospital, you will wash.” How I love that woman!

  8. #8 Martin R
    March 18, 2012

    Hehe, I like that!

  9. #9 Birger Johansson
    March 19, 2012

    Another tale of not-perfect hygiene: Tracking people by the pests they bring.
    “The Viking journey of mice and men”

  10. #10 SM
    March 19, 2012

    Birger: Its actually two opposing processes: natural water got more polluted, and diseases more widespread, in the last 200 years due to population growth and movements. Cholera left India in the 19th century, and since the 1970s American hikers have had to sterilize all their water due to a parasite called giardia which wasn’t present everywhere in the early 20th century. A lot of historical alcohols were too weak to sterilize water, and people used unboiled water for cooking and drinking and washing anyways.

    In response, humans developed technologies and customs like water-treatment plants and chlorinizing water.

  11. #11 Birger Johansson
    March 20, 2012

    The Romans provided fresh water, but the effort was offset by having littered cities and burial places were not necessarily separated from the activities of the living. I wonder if the “globalization” of ancient times -ships travelling between Egypt and China- contributed much to the epidemics during late Roman times.
    — — — — — — — — —
    “Cholera left India in the 19th century”
    Colonialism spread *a lot* of disease around the globe. The actual colonial soldiers were wrecked by malaria and other tropical diseases. The profits went to the top of the hierarchy, to people that never had to wade through mud.
    — — — —
    Giardia is a scrouge for its victims, but fascinating for science. It has a double cellular nucleus.

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