IAEA Workshop Spotlights Cultural Heritage Management with Nuclear Science

Alexandria may be named after its famous founder, but cities have lined Egypt’s northern coast long before Alexander the Great’s armies conquered. Regularly, archaeologists and researchers pull ancient artefacts from Abu Qir Bay, near Alexandria, and use nuclear techniques and technologies to study and date them.

One such researcher is Dina Atwa, from the Grand Egyptian Museum’s Conservation Centre. Collaborating with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France and the Elettra Synchrotron facility in Italy, she used synchrotron radiation to study a set of eight waterlogged ancient coins – a field of study called archaeometallurgy. Without damaging the coins, X-rays from the synchrotrons revealed to Atwa details about the coins’ composition, how they were made, and the processes of corrosion they have undergone. The coins were from the country’s Ptolemaic era (305 BCE to 30 BCE), the period following Alexander’s conquest.

Atwa was one of 125 experts invited to Vienna, Austria, this summer to present research at the IAEA Workshop on Innovative Approaches Accelerator Science and Technology for Sustainable Heritage Management – a four-day physical and virtual gathering focused on sharing information, techniques and opportunities for collaboration in the preservation and understanding of cultural heritage.

“Accelerator technologies can be used to study cultural heritage objects and provide quantitative data on their age, history, manufacturing processes and composition,” said Aliz Simon, the organizer of the workshop and an IAEA nuclear physicist specializing in accelerators. She leads the Agency’s work in artefact characterization: “With nuclear techniques, we can study historical objects to understand our past and preserve them for the future. By bringing researchers together at this workshop, we’re fostering a community of expertise in nuclear techniques to advance archaeology, anthropology and forensics science towards sustainable heritage management around the world.”

In May, the IAEA released an edition of its quarterly flagship magazine, the IAEA Bulletin, focused on applications of accelerators and other sources of ionizing radiation, highlighting the use of such technologies in both historical artefact characterization and preservation, as well as detecting fraudulent art pieces.

Accelerator technologies can be used to study cultural heritage objects and provide quantitative data on their age, history, manufacturing processes and composition.

Fighting illicit trade

One session of the workshop focused on the use of nuclear techniques in countering the illicit trade of heritage objects and materials. Bilal Nsouli, Director General of the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission and Chair of ARASIA, coordinated the panel, discussing case studies, cooperation, networking and capacity building to foster new projects.

Contributing to that panel, Lena Bassel, an IAEA associate project officer for heritage science, highlighted international efforts to communicate about and find stolen artefacts, in cooperation with INTERPOL and the International Council of Museums. “Nuclear techniques are efficient tools for determining the authenticity and origin of archaeological objects and combatting elicit trade,” Bassel said, presenting a case study of a Persian princess mummy.

Preserving and studying culture heritage around the world

The Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology employed portable XRF, a non-destructive analytical nuclear technique, to determine the elemental composition of almost 400 gold Ayutthaya artefacts. (Photo: S.Khaweerat/TINT)

Presenting at the Asia-Pacific session, Sasiphan Khaweerat from the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology (TINT), spoke about the numerous nuclear technique capabilities that TINT employs for artefact characterisation and preservation, including radiocarbon and luminescence dating; X-ray fluorescence (XRF), X-ray powder diffraction and neutron activation analysis; neutron, gamma and X-ray tomography; and gamma and electron beam irradiation. She described how these technologies have been used to characterise gold and gemstones artefacts from the Ayutthaya Kingdom – a Southeast Asian civilisation centred in Thailand between 1351 and 1767.

“We have long believed that in the past Thailand and countries in the region had a lot of gold, but today there is not much. Nuclear techniques can help us understand where Ayutthaya gold came from – whether it was local or imported,” said Khaweerat. She explained how TINT employed portable XRF, a non-destructive analytical nuclear technique, to determine the composition of almost 400 gold Ayutthaya artefacts as well as the past manufacturing technology.

The data showed that the artefacts shared similar elemental composition, implying the possibility that they can be traced back to a specific provenance of raw materials.

In Austria, researchers are also looking to expand the use of nuclear science in cultural studies and conservation. In conjunction with the IAEA workshop, Heritage Science Austria organized at the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien) an event outlining the platform’s efforts to join the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS) and showcased examples of nuclear science applications in European cultural heritage characterization.

At the joint session, Klaudia Hradil, Senior Principal Scientist at the TU Wien X-ray Centre, explained how Heritage Science Austria has brought Austrian scientists involved in heritage science together and that they have created a network of research disciplines. “By joining E-RIHS and collaborating more with the IAEA, we’re looking to expand our network and build knowledge at an international level on the use of nuclear techniques for cultural heritage. This is a field of science that can truly bring people together,” Hradil said.

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