Examining written artefacts with x-rays

DESY and the Cluster of Excellence ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ are jointly breaking new ground in the material analysis of historical written artefacts

Within a new cooperation between the Cluster of Excellence ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ (UWA) at Universität Hamburg and the German Electron Synchrotron DESY, scientists from Hamburg are now investigating historical written artefacts at the X-ray radiation source PETRA III. The prominent advantage of X-ray investigations is that the artefacts can be examined without any destruction. As far as the examination method allows, no special sample preparation is required – the precious and unique objects thus remain intact.

Currently, there are two pilot studies underway. The first study deals with Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. These millennia-old artefacts are an essential source for understanding this ancient, advanced civilization. However, many tablets that cannot be dated and originated are of limited value for research. DESY and UWA are investigating 36 objects from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (MKG) and the Hamburg State and University Library (SUB) collections to understand the context of the origin of a tablet by analyzing the nature of the clay. The powder diffraction method was chosen for the non-destructive and basic material characterization of this investigation. In this method, all mineral grains are detected by the X-ray beam in a local area, and these thus contribute to a characteristic diffraction pattern for a specific part of the clay tablet. The diffraction pattern consists of individual diffraction reflections for each contained mineral and gives atomic-level information about the crystalline structure. With suitable software, the mineral components can be analyzed, and thus an insight into the atomic structure – as well as the quantitative composition – of these minerals can be obtained.

Read more on the DESY website

Image: A tsakali during the experiment

Credit: DESY, Marta mayer