New 10 second sourcing technology set to transform archaeology

Sep 09, 2013

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have developed a method of sourcing obsidian artefacts that takes only 10 seconds – dozens of times faster than the current methods – with a handheld instrument that can be used at archaeological excavations.

Obsidian, naturally occurring , is smooth, hard, and far sharper than a surgical scalpel when fractured, making it a highly desirable raw material for crafting for almost all of human history. The earliest obsidian tools, found in East Africa, are nearly two million years old, and obsidian are still used today in specialised medical procedures.

The chemistry of obsidian varies from volcano to volcano, and the chemical "fingerprints" allow researchers to match an obsidian artefact to the volcanic origin of its raw material. The chemical tests often involve dedicated analytical laboratories, even nuclear reactors, and take place months or years after an archaeological site has been excavated.

The new process uses an analytical technique called portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF), which involves a handheld instrument about the size, shape, and weight of a cordless drill. This portability enables archaeologists to identify the origins of stone tools in the field rather than having to send off artefacts to a distant lab. The newly developed method, which saves time and money, will first be used to study obsidian tools made by , including Neanderthals and Homo erectus, tens of thousands of years ago.

Dr Ellery Frahm from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology explained: "Obsidian sourcing has, for the last 50 years, involved chemical analysis in a distant laboratory, often taking five minutes per artefact, completely separate from the process of archaeological excavation. We sought to bring new tools for chemical analysis with us into the field, so we can do obsidian sourcing as we excavate or survey an archaeological site, not wait until months or years later to learn the results. We can now analyse an obsidian artefact in the field, and just 10 seconds later, we have an answer for its origin.

"We carried out the research in Armenia because it has one of the most obsidian-rich natural and cultural landscapes in the world, and the lithic assemblages of numerous Palaeolithic sites are predominantly, if not entirely, composed of obsidian."

The work is the latest of Dr Frahm's achievements in the field of sourcing, an area that he previously researched in Syria, prior to the current conflict situation which now threatens the country's heritage.

This research arose from the department's involvement in the EU-funded Marie Curie network "New Archaeological Research Network for Integrating Approaches to Ancient Material Studies," known by its acronym as NARNIA. Dr Frahm explained that Sheffield's research with NARNIA includes uniting archaeological labwork and fieldwork in the field: "We have a broad remit on the project, but we are driven by two goals: work where we couldn't work before, and answer what we couldn't answer before."

Dr Frahm continued: "Here at Sheffield we're shifting chemical analysis from the realm of 'white lab coats' to 'muddy boots.' The more that archaeologists and specialists in various fields can work together on-site the better."

Explore further: New archaeological 'high definition' sourcing sharpens understanding of the past

More information: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440313003014

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Obsidian discovery reveals 4,000-year-old Syrian story

Sep 04, 2012

(Phys.org)—Ancient sites and cultural heritage are under threat in Syria due to the current conflict. An interdisciplinary research team hopes this new discovery, which has major implications for understanding ...

Research finds crisis in Syria has Mesopotamian precedent

Dec 18, 2012

(Phys.org)—Research carried out at the University of Sheffield has revealed intriguing parallels between modern day and Bronze-Age Syria as the Mesopotamian region underwent urban decline, government collapse, ...

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

4 hours ago

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.