Exploring an innovative technique of archaeological research

Published 07 January 2010

potA researcher at the University of New England is pioneering the use of new X-ray technology in analysing the composition of ancient pottery.

On her retirement as a teacher of art and mathematics at Bairnsdale Secondary College in East Gippsland, Jesse Walker knew exactly what she wanted to do: study archaeology at the University of New England. She didn’t know then, however, that her two-year Honours program would involve her in exploring the use of X-ray fluorescence in archaeological research.

Archaeology & Palaeoanthropology at UNE acquired a portable Bruker X-ray fluorescence (PXRF) instrument at the end of 2008, and when Ms Walker began her Archaeology Honours program in 2009 she was recognised – with her background in mathematics – as an ideal candidate to explore its capabilities in archaeology.

The PXRF instrument offers the exciting possibility of analysing the elemental composition of ancient ceramics in situ and without the necessity of destroying the material being analysed. Its versatility opens new avenues for researchers, as they can now study valuable museum specimens without moving them to a laboratory.

The technology involves the analysis of “secondary” (or fluorescent) X-rays emitted by a material that has been excited by bombarding it with high-energy X-rays. It is used in a variety of disciplines, including geochemistry, forensic science and archaeology, but its potential in the study of ceramics – particularly those housed in museums – has received little attention.

Ms Walker has at her disposal not only the PXRF instrument but also a museum well endowed with ancient ceramics: UNE’s Museum of Antiquities, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Using a set of potsherds of known composition available to her through an ARC-funded research project on Iron Age trade and exchange (the “Anatolian Iron Age Ceramics Project”), she has successfully calibrated the instrument for the analysis of ancient ceramics, and has gone on to analyse the elemental composition of two small ceramic vessels in the Museum, dating from the early Iron Age. (These are examples of “Red Lustrous Wheel-made Ware”, which was a major trade item of the late Bronze Age and occurs throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.) “Patterns of ceramic elements can be difficult to interpret because people alter the clay – for example, by adding sand – during the manufacturing process,” Ms Walker explained.

Her work will continue in 2010, but she believes she has already demonstrated that the instrument has exciting potential in the study of ancient ceramics. “The PXRF offers the possibility of widespread use in museum collections, allowing researchers to investigate the sources – and subsequent movements through trade and other human activities – of high-quality ceramics,” she said.

“It’s been fun,” she concluded. “And it’s suited me because it involves mathematical analysis.”

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here expands to show the PXRF instrument being used to analyse the composition of one of the Red Lustrous Wheel-made Ware objects in situ in UNE’s Museum of Antiquities. A photograph of Jesse Walker is superimposed.