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The potentially harmful effect of Roman bronze utensils


Q. I am a specialist in bronze vessels from the Roman Period and I have dedicated over 20 years of my career to their study and the establishment of their function. As a result of my research based on different kinds of evidence of archaeological character I have come to the conclusion that most types of bronze vessels such as jugs, amphorae, buckets, basins, etc. were actually used by the Romans for washing during the making of the toilette as well as in the Roman baths.
However, there has been a dispute over the years on the subject of the use of bronze vessels by the Romans as tableware for serving food and drinks such as wine and water and their application as kitchen utensils for cooking.
I would like to know if it could have been potentially harmful for the ancient Romans to keep and consume liquids from and cook and serve meals in bronze vessels if the interior surface of these objects was not covered with any other protective layer.
I have seen my grand mothers using big copper trays to make jam and tomato puree in and they always made sure those were tinned, but I do not use copper utensils and would like to know what exactly happens if copper or bronze (which actually contains copper)vessels without a protective layer are used for cooking, serving or storing liquids.

I believe that my historical question would be of interest to the broad public, specialists in the field and people who are interested in the practical side of it.

Thanks to anyone who may come with an opinion

I shall be very grateful indeed if you could suggest any answer or refer me to other sources of information on the matter.

Rossie Merdjanova
researcher - Norwich, UK

simultaneous (2007)

I dimly recall reading some theory someone had, about the use of lead in Roman pipes used to convey drinking water contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire, via lead induced brain damage.

Modern bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Neither is terribly toxic. But, the bronze used by the Ancients may have contained substantial lead.

dave wichern
Dave Wichern
Consultant - The Bronx, New York


All copper compounds are more or less toxic- but some of them probably can be used as medicines. In ayurvedic medicine (ancient medical system of India) metals and metal compounds are used as medicines(in old greek and chinese medicine systems too). Very well cleaned Copper/copper alloy utensils probably can be used for serving of greasy food,but you cannot use them for any acid containing food as salad (copper+ vinegar = copper acetate-very well known poisonous copper compound) or wine. Try to do some experiments with food prepared in copper/copper alloy utensils (how much copper/copper compounds they contained before and after cooking, taste before/after and so on). Hope it helps and good luck!

Goran Budija
- Zagreb, Croatia

December 24, 2015

A. It is well known fact of Chemistry that Copper is highly reactive transition metal, whose salts are more or less poisonous. Copper Sulfate is highly poisonous for example. In India, people says that it is good to eat in Bronze utensil. Storing of the food in bronze vessel for long time is point to be considered. It says that normal water drinking in copper pot kills the harmful bacteria and other potentially damaging things like virus and protozoa etc. It is required to get deep study before using it and also needs to know the manner how it has to be taken into use before using for self consumption stuff.

- Ahmedabad, India

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