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Proceedings of the International School of Physics Enrico Fermi

Course CLIV, M. Martini, M. Milazzo and M. Piacentini (Eds.)

IOS Press, Amsterdam 2004
DOI 10.3254/1-58603-385-9-347

Archaeometryan overview
M. S. Tite
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford
6 Keble Road, Oxford, OX1 3QJ, UK

Archaeometry is best regarded as an umbrella term that covers a series of collabo-

rations between the natural sciences and archaeology. The principal themes that are
normally included under the heading archaeometry are remote sensing; science-based
dating; the study of the production, distribution and use of artefacts; the study of man
and his environment; computing and mathematical modelling; and conservation [1, 2].
In the present paper, following a summary of the history of the development of archaeom-
etry in the UK, the aims, potential and limitations of the first four of these themes will
be briefly reviewed.

History of archaeometry in the UK

The development of archaeometry in the UK begins with the founding in 1955 of the
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford,
through the combined efforts of a physicist, Lord Cherwell, and an archaeologist, Pro-
fessor Christopher Hawkes. During the first 35 years of its existence, the director of the
Laboratory was Professor Edward Hall and he, together with Professor Martin Aitken,
were involved in many of the major developments in archaeometry during this period.
Thus, the Laboratorys research activities ranged from the development of proton mag-
netometers for geophysical prospection on archaeological sites and the building of early
X-ray fluorescence spectrometers and electron microprobes for the analysis of archaeo-
logical artefacts; through extensive research on magnetic and thermoluminecence dating;
to the setting up of the first small sample accelerator radiocarbon dating laboratory
dedicated almost entirely to the dating of archaeological samples.
The term archaeometry was first coined in 1958 by Professor Hawkes as the title
c Societa Italiana di Fisica
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of the Bulletin of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.
This has now become the international research journal, Archaeometry, volume 45 of
which is being published this year (2003). The Oxford Research Laboratory also provided
the initial impetus for the beginning of regular international archaeometry symposia.
In 1962, a training course was organised for archaeologists who had purchased proton
gradiometers from the Laboratory. During subsequent years regular reunions of these
gradiometer users were held in Oxford. Gradually the scope of these reunions expanded
to cover other aspects of archaeometry until eventually they evolved into the annual
(now biennial) International Symposium on Archaeometry, the 33rd of which was held
in Amsterdam in April 2002.
During the 1970s, an important development was the introduction at the University
of Bradford of degree courses in archaeological science. Bradford first introduced a one-
year MA in Scientific Methods in Archaeology and then a three-year undergraduate BTech
in Archaeological Sciences in which more or less equal amounts of time were spent on
archaeology and archaeological science. It should perhaps be emphasised at this point
that, in the UK, archaeological science is now favoured over archaeometry as the
umbrella-term, especially when considering the application of the full range of sciences,
both quantitative and qualitative, to archaeology.
Perhaps the most important single event for the development of archaeometry in the
UK occurred in 1976 with the establishment of a Science-based Archaeology Committee
within the Science and Engineering Research Council. This Committee, which has been
chaired both by archaeologists and scientists, was able to allocate funds for research
into the development of new techniques and new instrumentation specifically for use in
archaeology as well as for the application of established scientific techniques to new ar-
chaeological problems. The research supported has spanned the full range of physical and
biological sciences with funds being provided for dating, for technological and provenance
studies of artefacts, for conservation, for geophysical prospection, for geoarchaeology, for
archaeobotany and zooarchaeology, for food residue analysis, for study of ancient diets
and for the analysis of surviving DNA as well as for applications of statistical and com-
puting methods. The extent of the financial support increased from some 50K per year
at the beginning to maximum of some 1.5-2M in the 1990s, a figure that, under the
current funding policy of the Natural Environment Research Council who now allocate
the funds, appears to be progressively decreasing. Fortunately, however, in the field of
biomolecular archaeology (e.g. dietary and DNA studies) some of this shortfall is being
met by funds from the Wellcome Trust.
Subsequently, during the 1980s and 1990s, varying amounts of archaeometry or ar-
chaeological science were introduced into undergraduate archaeology degree courses at
other universities in the UK. Then, in 1989, the University Grants Committee provided a
further boost to the full integration of archaeological science into archaeology by moving
some way towards funding archaeology, in selected universities, as a science-based sub-
ject rather than as a humanities subject. As a result of this development, together with
the rapid expansion in the numbers of students at UK universities, most archaeology
departments in the UK now include on their staff at least 1 or 2 lecturers specialising in
Archaeometryan overview 349

archaeological science, and several now have professors of archaeological science. Thus,
in the UK, few students can now emerge from an archaeology undergraduate degree
course without, at least, some knowledge of archaeological science and many students
can realistically be classified as true archaeological scientists or archaeometrists.

Remote sensing

Remote sensing started with the location of archaeological sites by aerial photography
in the 1920s. Then, from the 1950s onwards, geophysical prospection techniques, such as
magnetic and resistivity surveying and more recently ground probing radar, have been
extensively employed on archaeological sites [3]. In addition to locating archaeological
sites, these techniques are used both to locate specific features (e.g. kiln, hearths, pits,
ditches, roads, walls) for immediate excavation, and to provide a complete map of the
underlying archaeology associated with, for example, settlements, hillforts, Roman villas
and cemeteries.
Magnetic surveying involves detecting the very small changes in the Earths magnetic
field (ideally 1 part in 100000) using proton, fluxgate or caesium magnetometers. Kilns
and hearths cause a small increase in the magnetic field due to the thermoremanent
magnetism resulting from their firing. Pits and ditches again cause a small increase in
the magnetic field due to the enhanced magnetic susceptibility of their fill as compared
to that of the surrounding subsoil. This enhanced susceptibility is the result of the fires
and decaying organic material associated with human occupation. Conversely, walls and
roads cause a small decrease in magnetic field since the magnetic susceptibility of their
construction materials (stone and gravel) is less than that of the surrounding soil.
Resistivity surveying involves the insertion of probes into the ground for the measure-
ment of its electrical resistivity. The primary factor determining resistivity is the water
content. Therefore, typically, walls and roads with low water content exhibit high resis-
tivity, and pits and ditches with higher water content exhibit low resistivity. However,
it must be remembered that either recent rainfall or extended periods of drought can
change the pattern of observed resistivity from that predicted above.
Ground probing radar involves scanning the ground with radiowaves and analysing
the pattern of reflections from buried features. In principle, this technique has the
potential to detect a series of superimposed archaeological features such as those present
on complex urban sites. However, the limited penetration of the radiowaves except under
extremely dry conditions, the great complexity of the pattern of reflections, and the high
cost of ground probing radar surveys have so far limited the use of this technique on
archaeological sites.

Science-based dating

Science-based dating techniques have been of very great importance in providing

archaeology with a worldwide and absolute chronology. Using a range of such techniques,
350 M. S. Tite

it is now possible to date archaeological contexts from less than a hundred years back to
several million years [4, 5].
Radiocarbon dating is probably the technique that has had greatest impact on ar-
chaeology, of particular importance being the investigation of the chronology for the
development and spread of agriculture across the world. The method involves measuring
the proportion of radioactive carbon (carbon 14) surviving in once living (i.e. organic)
material from which the time that has elapsed since death is determined. The mea-
surements are now most frequently made using an accelerator mass spectrometer which
requires only milligrams of carbon as compared to the grams of carbon required for the
conventional method involving counting the emitted beta-particles. One problem with
radiocarbon dating is that, as a result of variations over time in the rate of production
of radioactive carbon by cosmic rays, the dates need to be calibrated. However, once
established, the calibration is applicable on an essentially worldwide basis. A very de-
tailed calibration curve back to about 10000 BP has been established by radiocarbon
dating of tree-rings from a sequence of long-lived trees (bristlecone pines from California
and bog oaks from Ireland) dated by dendrochronology. The maximum age that can be
determined by radiocarbon dating is about 4000050000 years. For dating beyond 50000
years, as is necessary for the investigation of the emergence of modern man, archaeologists
must therefore turn to either luminescence dating or uranium series dating.
Luminescence dating can be applied either to materials that have been heated in
antiquity such as pottery or burnt stones, or to materials exposed to sunshine such as
windblown, alluvial and colluvial sediments. Heating or exposure to sunlight removes
any luminescence accumulated over geological time, thus setting the luminescence clock
to zero. Luminescence which is associated with trapped electrons then builds up again
through the action of high-energy radiation from both internal and environmental ra-
dioactive impurities, and is measured in the laboratory either by heating (thermolumi-
nescence) or by light stimulation (optically stimulated luminescence). Although tending
to be less precise than radiocarbon dating, the fact that pottery, burnt flint or sediment
are being directly dated, rather by being dated, for example, by an associated sample of
charcoal, means that luminescence dating is often more accurate.
Uranium series dating, which involves measurement of the build up of thorium 230
resulting from the decay of uranium 234, depends on the fact that uranium is soluble in
ground water whereas thorium is insoluble. For closed systems, such as coral, stalactites,
stalagmites and travertine, in which the uranium is present at formation, uranium series
dating is a well-established method. However, the number of archaeological contexts
found in association with such materials is somewhat limited. For archaeology, bone and
teeth are of much greater relevance. However, in order to date bone and teeth, which are
open systems into which uranium diffuses subsequent to burial, it is necessary to make
assumptions about the rate of uranium uptake. Typically, both early and linear uranium
uptake are assumed, resulting inevitable in a fairly wide date range for the sample. Re-
cently, laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) has
been used to measure rapidly and non-destructively the actual uranium concentration
profiles through bone and teeth. From the profiles, the diffusion rates can be calculated
Archaeometryan overview 351

and more accurate, single dates can be determined from the uranium/thorium ratio pro-
The maximum age that can be determined by either luminescence or uranium series
dating is about 500000 years. For dating beyond 500000 years, as is necessary for the
investigation of early hominids, archaeologists must therefore turn to potassium-argon
dating. This method, which involves measurement of the build up of argon 40 resulting
from the decay of potassium 40, can be used to date only that archaeological material
found in close association with volcanic deposits. The main archaeological application of
the method has therefore been in East Africa where a range of important early hominid
sites extending back several millions years have been successfully dated.

Artefact studies

Artefact studies are concerned with the investigation of the overall life cycle of an arte-
fact from the acquisition and processing of the raw materials, through production and
distribution, to use, reuse and discard [6, 7]. Such investigations involve first the recon-
struction of the life cycle and second its interpretation in terms of the people producing,
distributing and using the artefacts.
Thus, reconstruction involves establishing how the artefacts were made, where they
were made and to where they were distributed, and how they were used. The inter-
pretation of the reconstructed production technology includes determining how a new
technology was discovered, why a new technology was adopted, why a particular techno-
logical choice was made or change occurred, and what the mode of production was (e.g.,
household or workshop). Similarly, the interpretation of the reconstructed distribution
(i.e., trade and exchange) includes determining why there was a particular distribution
pattern and what the mode of exchange was (e.g., down-the-line or central markets).
Answering the questions relating to interpretation requires a holistic approach that
takes full account of the fact that production, distribution and use are embedded within
and, therefore, interact with the associated environmental, technological, economic, so-
cial, political and ideological contexts. Thus the overall context can influence, for ex-
ample, the production technology both directly, and indirectly via the requirements for
distribution and use.

Pottery production. For pottery, the reconstruction of the production technology

involves determinining what raw materials were used, how these raw materials were
prepared, how the pottery was formed (e.g. coiling or throwing), how it was decorated
(e.g. slip or burnishing) and how it was fired (e.g. kiln or bonfire). Thus, for Roman terra
sigillata, scientific examination has established that a calcareous clay was used, that the
pots were thrown into a mould on a fast wheel and that a non-calcareous, high potash
and iron oxide slip was applied to the surface. The pottery was then finally fired in a
kiln at a temperature in the range 9001000 C in a highly oxidising atmosphere, thus
producing the characteristic high gloss, semi-vitreous, red surface finish.
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Copper alloys. Although not followed in detail in all regions, the typical sequence
of copper alloys used in antiquity in the Near East and Europe is native copper, smelted
copper, arsenical copper, bronze (copper plus tin), leaded bronze and finally brass (copper
plus zinc). To some extent this sequence of alloys reflects the sequence of ores in an
idealised copper deposit. Thus, the thin, upper oxidised zone provides the native copper
and the ore for producing smelted unalloyed copper; the next secondary enrichment zone
provides the arsenic-bearing sulphide ores for producing arsenical copper; and the final
primary deposit of sulphide ores is used to produce the copper which is alloyed with tin
to produce bronze.
In trying to explain the reasons for the adoption of these different alloys, it is necessary
to consider their mechanical properties and their colour as well as economic factors [8,9].
Thus, the addition of a few percent of arsenic to copper results in a metal that can be
hardened by cold-working as well as one that has a distinctive silvery colour. The switch
from arsenic to tin as the alloying component could be due to the fact that the more
readily available arsenic-enriched ores had been fully exploited. Alternatively, it could be
because, being non-volatile, tin has the advantage over arsenic that its production is less
hazardous for the metal smelter, and that the amount added to the copper can be more
readily controlled. Also, it should be noted that the resulting bronze has a distinctive
golden colour that might have been favoured over the silvery arsenical copper. The
addition of lead to bronze both lowers the melting point of the alloy and increases its
mobility when molten, thus facilitating casting. However, some 23% of lead is sufficient
for a lower melting point and increased mobility whereas much higher amounts (up to
30%) were added to many bronzes. Therefore, it seems likely that lead, which was a
by-product of silver production, was frequently used as a cheap substitute for copper
and tin in spite of the fact that, because it is present as small globules, it significantly
weakens the resulting metal.

Copper trade in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. Copper oxhide ingots which
are found on sites from the Levant in the east, through Cyprus, Crete and mainland
Greece, to Sardinia in the west clearly form a major component of the copper trade in
the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean [10].
Lead isotope analysis provides a powerful technique for identifying the ore sources
from which the copper used to make the oxhide ingots was derived. On the basis of
the extensive lead isotope control data for copper ore sources in the Mediterranean, it
is apparent that the lead isotope data for a high proportion of the oxhide ingots match
that for the copper ores from a particular region of Cyprus. Thus, in addition to oxhide
ingots found on Cyprus itself, ingots from the Cape Gelidonya shipwreck off the south
Anatolian coast, from mainland Greece and from Sardinia all appear to have been made
using Cypriot copper. In contrast, copper and bronze artefacts tend mainly to have been
made using local copper ores. Thus, artefacts from mainland Greece are made from
copper ores from Laurion, and those from Sardinia are made from local Sardinian ores.
Because archaeologists were somewhat surprised by these results, they have questioned
whether the interpretation of lead isotope data is correct [11]. For example, could there
Archaeometryan overview 353

be an overlap between the lead isotope ratios for Sardinian and Cypriot ores, or could
the results be explained in terms of the reuse of the ingots and the consequent mixing
of copper from more than one ore source? However, extensive fieldwork in Sardinia has
not revealed any ore sources with lead isotope ratios even close to those for the Cypriot
ores [12]. Similarly, to explain the results in terms of mixing would require ore sources
that, when combined, would give lead isotope ratios equal to those for the Cypriot ores,
and no obvious suitable candidates have been identified.
Therefore, we need to reconsider the nature of the trade in oxhide ingots [13]. Perhaps,
rather than being a commodity from which copper or bronze artefacts were produced,
the oxhide ingots were used as a type of coinage to balance a trade that, in addition
to copper ingots, included glass ingots, tin ingots, ivory and ebony as well as pottery
containing resins, spices and foodstuffs. Alternatively, perhaps the oxhide ingots were
acquired specifically for deposition as a gesture of conspicuous consumption.

Artefact use. In establishing the use, as well as the reuse, to which artefacts were
put in the past, the first step is a careful assessment of the archaeological context in
which they were found. Secondly, one studies any surface wear resulting from use of the
artefact, and analyses any residues, principally organic but also inorganic, surviving on
or within the body of the artefact.
In the case of stone tools, it is possible, by examination of the surface polish on the
working edge at high magnification under an optical microscope, to distinguish between
tools that have been used to work or cut bone, hide, wood and meat [14]. In addition,
immunological tests have been used in an attempt to detect blood on stone tools and
identify the animal species from which it originated but the results have been inconclusive.
In contrast, in the case of pottery, the examination of surface wear has been of limited
use. However, because of the higher porosity of pottery as compared to stone together
with the fact that their contents have often been heated, analyses of organic residues [15]
have made valuable contributions to both pottery use and palaeodiet studies.

Man and his environment

Through its provision of food, clothing and shelter, the environment provides the basis
for mans subsistence. Environmental archaeology therefore aims at reconstructing past
flora, fauna, landscape and climates through the examination of soils and sediments;
plant macrofossils and pollen; animal, fish and bird remains; and mollusc and insect
remains [16].
The study of man (and woman!) similarly starts with the examination of skeletal
remains from which information on stature and sex; malnutrition, disease and injury; and
age at death can be obtained. More recently, this macroscopic examination of skeletal
remains has been supplemented by stable isotope analysis to investigate past diet and
DNA analyses, these new fields of study frequently being referred to as biomolecular
354 M. S. Tite

Stable isotope analysis of human bone. The stable carbon and nitrogen ratios de-
tected in human bone provide valuable information on that persons diet [17]. Thus, the
stable carbon isotope ratio (13 C/12 C) provides an indication of the extent to which the
diet was based on C3 type plants from temperate regions, C4 type plants, such as maize,
from more tropical regions, or marine products. Similarly, the stable nitrogen isotope
ratio (15 N/14 N) provides an indication of the trophic level of the food in the diet. Thus,
the 15 N/14 N ratio in bone increases as the diet changes from being vegetarian to meat
eating to fish based.
The stable isotope methodology has been applied to a wide range of archaeological
projects. An important early study was the investigation of the introduction of maize
into North America [18]. Stable carbon analysis of a series of human bones from North
America spanning the period from 2000 BC through to about 1500 AD show low ratios,
characteristic of hunter-gatherers living in a temperate environment, up until about 400
500 AD. The stable-carbon ratios then progressively increase, reflecting the progressive
introduction of maize agriculture, until by about 1200 AD the ratios suggest that some
70% of the diet consists of maize, or animals that have been fed primarily on maize.
A further study relates to the importance of a marine contribution to diet along
the Atlantic coast of Europe during the Mesolithic [19]. In this case the stable isotope
analysis of human bones show the high carbon and nitrogen ratios consistent with a
predominantly fish-based diet, although not reaching the exceptionally high nitrogen
ratios associated with seal bones. Interestingly, the isotopic ratios for human bones
from the subsequent Neolithic period fall firmly within the lower isotope ratio range
characteristic of a terrestrial omnivorous diet, even in the case of settlements located
close to the coast.
The relationship between diet and status, age or gender has also been investigated,
and differences in diet have been used to suggest migration of people [20]. In addition,
where hair has survived, stable isotope analysis along the length of an individual hair
has been used to indicate seasonal changes in diet, as well as the season of the year at
which death occurred [21].

DNA studies. The two big archaeological questions to which DNA studies have
contributed are the emergence of modern man and the spread of agriculture across Europe
from the Near East. In these studies, both ancient DNA and the DNA of modern
populations have been analysed. The limitations of the former measurements are that
only fragmentary ancient DNA survives, and great care has to be taken to avoid its
contamination by modern human DNA.
In investigating the emergence of modern man, DNA of modern populations tends to
support the out-of-Africa model in which modern man is predicted as emerging from
Africa some 100000 years ago and replacing the different forms of archaic man already
present in the different regions of the world [22]. This model contrasts with the multi-
regional model in which modern man is predicted as having developed independently
from archaic man in each region. Support for the out-of-Africa model has been provided
by the analysis of mitochondrial DNA from two specimens of Neanderthal man from
Archaeometryan overview 355

Europe which indicate that Neanderthal man did not contribute to the modern human
gene pool [23].
In the investigation of the spread of agriculture across Europe, analysis of the mito-
chondrial DNA of modern populations suggests that the Near East contribution to the
modern European gene pool is only some 10% of the total. Therefore, it is unlikely that
there was any large-scale movement of people across Europe during the Neolithic and
that the introduction of agriculture was an indigeneous development with only a minor
input of people from the Near East [24].


In summary, it is apparent that archaeometry or archaeological science has made

very important and wide ranging contributions to archaeology. However, to ensure that
archaeometry remains relevant to archaeology, it is essential that only real archaeological
questions are addressed. This in turn necessitates the maintenance of a sustained dialogue
between archaeometrists and archaeologists together with a holistic approach that goes
beyond reconstruction to a full interpretation within the specific archaeological context
under investigation.
In addition, it is important that archaeometrists remain fully aware of new develop-
ments in instrumentation so that these new techniques can be used at an early stage
in their development for the examination of archaeological materials. Of particular im-
portance in this context are techniques, such as LA-ICP-MS and synchrotron-radiation
based analyses, which can achieve a high throughput of samples and, at the same time,
minimise the size of any samples that need to be removed from the archaeological object.


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