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Casting New Light on Ancient Secrets

Date: Monday, February 16, 2009, 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Location: Hyatt Regency Chicago, Grand C North

In many cases, our knowledge of the past has had to wait for technological advances to provide the tools required to learn more about the origins of life and ancient history. Today, the fascinating secrets of our ancient world are being uncovered with the assistance of state of the art, non-destructive x-ray techniques. This symposium presents an insight into the capabilities of the many light source research facilities located around the world in relation to archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology.

Samples being studied are wide ranging and include fossil primates and hominins, Peruvian mummy teeth dating from the early 1500s, T. Rex dinosaur remains, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, priceless irreplaceable works of art, and 10th century parchment never seen before in modern times. Anthropologists are interested in what ancient people ate and archaeologists are on the hunt for the oldest collagen on the planet. International researchers will share their latest discoveries and explain their research aspirations for the future.

Moderator: Murray Gibson, Director of the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory

New Light on Ancient Secrets: An Overview

Ernest Fontes, Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, Cornell University

Fontes, a physicist and assistant director for the Cornell synchrotron, will discuss the foundations of x-ray fluorescence techniques and their broad application to many areas of science relevant to everyday life. Among the many topics that might be covered are how: marine biologists study the migration of fish and water pollution; art historians discover hidden treasures in buried layers of paint without having to touch irreplaceable works of art; dendrochronologists marvel at how growth rings in trees have recorded the affects of volcanoes that occurred hundreds to thousands of years ago; humanists and classicists uncover written text in weather-worn stone tablets and parchments; and environmental scientists separate toxins from benign nutrients using detailed chemical speciation.

Archimedes Palimpsest: Reading the Unreadable

Uwe Bergmann, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The Archimedes Palimpsest—a tattered parchment document dating to the 10th century—contains what is by far the oldest surviving copy of works by the Greek genius Archimedes of Syracuse (287 – 212 BC). Recently, using a rapid-scan x-ray fluorescence imaging technique, sections of the text never seen before in modern times were brought to light at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. Subsequent to the Archimedes project, the rapid scan system—able to image 1 million pixels in less than one hour—has led to several completely unrelated studies of large objects ranging from ancient manuscripts, to dinosaur fossils and human brain sections.

21st Century Science Helps Tell Story of Early Chinese Dynasties

Francesca Casadio, The Art Institute of Chicago

Francesca Casadio and her colleagues from The Art Institute of Chicago have teamed up with scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to investigate the casting technology and the inner structure of ancient bronzes from early Chinese dynasties (1700-221 BCE). In her talk, Francesca will describe how high-brilliance x-ray beams have helped The Art Institute understand the story of the craftsmen who created the vessels.

Imaging Fossils to Reveal the History of Life on Our Planet

Paul Tafforeau, European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

Virtual paleontology and x-ray synchrotron microtomography of Fossils can reveal to paleontologists the history of life on our planet and shed light on our deep origins. After more than two centuries of paleontological studies, new technologies are creating revolutions in the investigations of fossils. Among these technologies, x-ray synchrotron imaging opened access to new information, or even to new fossils, by non-destructively revealing their internal structures with incomparable accuracy and sensitivity. The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) initiated that revolution, and still plays the lead role by continuously increasing its application range on fossils. Paul Tafforeau, a paleontologist at the ESRF, will present the major results obtained at the facility by using these non-destructive imaging techniques and the future possibilities that the ESRF offers to paleontologists.

Gentle Giant to Answer the Unanswerable

Jen Hiller, Diamond Light Source

Since coming online in January 2007, the United Kingdom’s Diamond Light Source has already undertaken studies on Henry VIII’s Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, T. Rex dinosaur remains and one of 19th century British painter JMW Turner’s favorite paint pigments, Prussian blue.  Experts from a host of UK museums, art galleries and libraries are lining up to conduct experiments at the facility, where new techniques are pushing the boundaries of what it is possible to study and discover.  A range of methods from biology, materials science and engineering, including x-ray scattering, spectroscopy, infrared microscopy, and tomography, are available or in development, which are useful for conservation and archaeological science. A common feature is that all the techniques are non-destructive so priceless, irreplaceable samples, can be studied in extremely fine detail. Dr Jen Hiller, Diamond’s in-house archaeologist, will present the cultural heritage research findings that have come out of the facility to date and describe future projects that are being planned with organizations such as the British Museum and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. 

Advancing Detectors to Peek at the Past

Pete Siddons, National Synchrotron Light Source, Brookhaven National Laboratory

X-ray fluorescence is a powerful technique often used in the environmental and geological sciences for measuring trace element concentrations in a sample. It’s also a way to shed light on the complexities of archaeological and historical artifacts. A major roadblock, however, is the time it takes to scan the object of interest, as the system’s small x-ray spot is manually moved from one location to another. In this talk, we will describe a new "on-the-fly" x-ray fluorescence microprobe system that is about 1,000 times faster than previous methods. In the first demonstration of the technique, researchers produced a 4-mega-pixel image of a 14th century tooth and looked for indicators of lead poisoning. More recently, the system has been used to image artwork, revealing the techniques of painters such as Bertha Lum and Edward Hooper. Now being implemented at light sources around the world, this technology will help unlock more secrets of the past with much greater depth and coverage.


Visit our Anniversary Website One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York on behalf of Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.

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