From conservator to researcher at the world’s brightest synchrotron

Light sources around the world are playing an increasingly important role in helping to uncover the past and protect historical objects for generations to come. Ida Fazlić is currently a PhD student at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. Her research is focusing on the use of metal catalysts that are used to speed up the drying reactions of historical and industrial paints. Ida’s project will provide valuable information to collaborator Rijksmuseum on the use or misuse of dryers throughout history and up to the current day. Also there effect on the stability and aesthetic of the painted objects.

Ida was attracted to this area of work through her valuable experience of working as a conservator and restorer at the national gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This work led her to question the chemical and physical processes that caused the degradation of the painted layers that she was seeing on a daily basis. Ida decided to study the crucial and very important role of science and technology in conservation of cultural heritage objects. For Ida, the best thing about working at a light source is that, “You have endless opportunities of going as far in your research as you want to go and in any direction that you want to go because at any moment you have the world’s most powerful material investigation techniques at hand.”

Conservation boost for 500-year-old shipwreck

The ESRF has allowed scientists to discover nanoparticles that could lead to degradation in a 500-year-old shipwreck: the Mary Rose, an English warship.

Almost 40 years ago, a salvage operation brought to the surface the Mary Rose warship, which used to be Henry VIII’s favourite warship and sank in 1545. Throughout these years, scientists have been using conservation treatments to preserve it. Unfortunately, the remains of the ship are vulnerable to degradation after spending more than 400 years at the bottom of the sea, where harmful deposits collected inside the ship’s wooden hull.

A team of researchers, led by the University of Sheffield, has used ctPDF, an x-ray technique developed at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and Columbia University, to obtain vital information on the nanostructure of substances lodged within the ship’s wood and that could lead to the Mary Rose degrading. 

Researchers were previously unable to obtain information on the nature and structure of these deposits, as they are incredibly diverse and exist on such a small scale. The fragility of the remains also hindered efforts to find out more about the substances.

ctPDF has enabled researchers to identify the harmful deposits for the first time and in a non-destructive way. Serena Cussen, Chair in Functional Nanomaterials at the University of Sheffield and corresponding author of the publication, explains: “This project has brought together researchers from around the world to uncover the nature of potentially harmful deposits lodged within the wooden hull of the Mary Rose. These deposits, when exposed to air, can act to degrade the wood. By understanding their structure, we might understand better these degradation pathways, as well as develop treatments that target their removal”.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: The hull of the Mary Rose

Credit: The Mary Rose Trust

Unravelling the history of 15th Century Chinese porcelains

Researchers from French and Spanish Institutions used the combination of two synchrotron light characterization techniques to study Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelains. They were able to identify the firing temperature by determining the porcelain’s pigments and the reduction-oxidation media conditions during their production. The approach they used can also be applied on a broad range of modern and archaeological ceramics to elucidate their production technology.

Pottery is found at the majority of archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic period, when first human settings appear, onwards. Which makes it a major focus of study in archaeological science.  The study of style and production of ceramics is central to the historical reconstruction of a site, region and period.

More specifically, ceramic technological studies look to reconstruct the production technology of ceramics, by determining the selection and preparation of the raw materials, the formation of ceramics, treatment and decoration of the ware’s surface and the firing atmosphere. All of this is possible thanks to the scientific techniques available nowadays.

In a recent publication, researchers from French and Spanish Institutions used the combination of two synchrotron light characterization techniques to study Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelains. These characteristic porcelains, whose production flourished around the 14th century, are decorated under the glaze with Cobalt-based blue pigments that provided their distinctive blue decorations and produced during a one-step firing at high temperatures.

They were able to identify the firing temperature by determining the porcelain’s pigments and the reduction-oxidation media conditions during their production. The approach they used can also be applied on a broad range of modern and archaeological ceramics to elucidate their production technology.

Read more on the ALBA website

Image: Porcelain Jar with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze (Jingdezhen ware). Mid-15th century

Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Invisible ink” on antique Nile papyrus revealed by multiple methods

Researchers from the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin universities and Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin studied a small piece of papyrus that was excavated on the island of Elephantine on the River Nile a little over 100 years ago.

The team used serval methods including non-destructive techniques at BESSY II. The researchers’ work, reported in the Journal of Cultural Heritage, blazes a trail for further analyses of the papyrus collection in Berlin.

The first thing that catches an archaeologist’s eye on the small piece of papyrus from Elephantine Island on the Nile is the apparently blank patch. Researchers from the Egyptian Museum, Berlin universities and Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin have now used the synchrotron radiation from BESSY II to unveil its secret. This pushes the door wide open for analysing the giant Berlin papyrus collection and many more.

>Read more on the BESSY II at HZB website

Illustration: A team of researchers examined an ancient papyrus with a supposed empty spot. With the help of several methods, they discovered which signs once stood in this place and which ink was used.
Credit: © HZB

Diamond’s light illuminates our Anglo-Saxon heritage

Oakington is a small, village seven miles north-west of Cambridge. Archaeological finds in the area suggest that there may have been a settlement here in the Stone Age. In 1926, horticulturalist Alan Bloom was digging at his new nursery in Oakington when he uncovered three early Anglo-Saxon burials. In the 1990s, Cambridge County Council’s Archaeological Field Unit uncovered 24 more burials, which had been discovered during the construction of a children’s playground.
Wondering what else was hidden under the Fens, archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East (then known as CAMARC) found 17 more burials in 2006/7. And in 2010/11, a further 27 burials were found in new trenches around the playground, including the remains of children, which are rare finds from this period. The most recent excavations were part of the ‘Bones without Barriers’ project, which encourages community communication and participation.