ANSTO is committed to using its infrastructure and expertise to work with Aboriginal communities and organisations to confirm the great antiquity of Aboriginal cultural heritage and assist with their preservation.
A number of sophisticated non-invasive nuclear and accelerator techniques were used to provide information about the origin and age of an Australian Aboriginal knife held in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.
The knife with a striking highly polished resin handle was selected to be part of a 26-object exhibition, The Invisible Revealed held at the Powerhouse during 2021-2022.
Prior to the exhibition, the Powerhouse Museum wanted to determine the materials used in the construction of the knife and handle.
Powerhouse Museum First Nations Collections Coordinator, Tammi Gissell, explained that because little was known about the origin or use of the blade, it had to be handled with caution and following cultural protocols.
For this reason, the object was sent in a closed box to senior instrument scientist Dr Joseph Bevitt.
“Essentially, we had to answer these questions without looking at the object. The object was sent to the Australian Synchrotron, where we used a 3D imaging technique, known as tomography, on the Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) to analyse it. The powerful X-ray can penetrate the box and the object to reveal important information about the materials,” explained Dr Bevitt.
The imaging was done by IMBL instrument scientist Dr Anton Maksimento and the data processed by Dr Bevitt.
“We could determine that the object was not made of metal but a very dense bone. Only two animals had bone that dense – the Australian cassowary and the water buffalo. As the museum told us it was found in northern Queensland, the source would have been the cassowary,” he added.
The next investigation used radiocarbon dating of the red Abrus seeds found on the handle.
Radiocarbon dates of the seeds from the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO indicated that they were most likely to have been harvested between 1877 and 1930— which may indicate the knife’s time of production.
Read more on the ANSTO website
Image: Image from the Imaging and Medical beamline at the Australian Synchrotron