21 June 2012

A thoughtful historian responding to the recent mention of Materialytics in National Geographic, wondered if our work with gems could help to classify stones that show up along the ancient Silk Routes. The answer is: not currently. This led to interesting discussion of how M2S® could help historians and archaeologists uncover more information about artifacts; silk, for example. The topic of silk is a whole lot more complicated and intriguing than we non-archaeologists realized…and how about ancient grains…glass…even menhirs*?  We have NOT done any work with silk or grains, let alone menhirs, but have taken a preliminary look at organic materials (others have done more), and are encouraged.

The unconventional approach M2S uses to deal with spectroscopic data compares unknown material samples of interest with a statistically significant number of well-documented materials. M2S takes into account literally thousands of variables, making it a remarkably sensitive tool. The unconventional aspect of this is that M2S is not using a chemometric method, and it isn’t necessary to know what those variables mean, or even what they are. If (that is…IF) large enough databases of archaeological reference samples could be developed, it should be possible to produce interesting new information.

The question is; how do we get statistically significant numbers of samples for the Reference Database?  For example, how many well-documented Kushan coins are available for a database? or woolen vests? or ancient tengric nazars? (Were these two thokcha made from the same tektite?) Creation of the necessary databases would take not only time and money, but creative diplomatic skills to persuade institutions all over the world to make samples available.

Research might be more tightly focused. For example, one could build a database using only hundreds or a few thousand artifacts from a single archaeological site. If the artifacts selected were manufactured at that site or in the general area, it would be practical to compare that collection with similar items found in distant locations. If an item found in Venice matched a database of items made in Nedong, you could be be fairly sure where the Venetian piece came from. More emphatically, you could be very sure that a non-matching piece did not come from Nedong. Our standard practice is to analyze samples that are ostensibly from the same source, to see if they really are. Items from other sources, accidentally or deliberately included in that group, stand out prominently, making ringers and counterfeits easy to spot.

Materialytics has no active project in this area, but the new field of Quantagenetics® will be developing steadily over the next few years, and should become helpful to archaeologists. We merely suggest being alert to possibilities.

Note that the First European Mineralogical Conference EMC-2012  (Frankfurt , 2-6 Sept. 2012),  http://emc2012.uni-frankfurt.de, includes this session:

13 a - Mineralogical sciences and Cultural Heritage
“The archaeometric studies of artistic and archaeological artifacts implies the identification of nature and provenance of raw materials, as well as the definition of various aspects of their production technology and mechanisms of decay. Researchers in Mineralogical Sciences are well equipped, from the methodological and experimental point of view, for studying these complex materials and for interpreting the processes they underwent. In the frame of EMC-2012, the session "Mineralogical sciences and Cultural Heritage" is intended as a forum for presenting and discussing different experimental approaches and the results obtained in the study of a wide variety of materials, ranging from ceramics, glass, pigments and lithics to metals, building materials and others.”

The keynote speaker is Dr. Patrick Degryse of Leuven University, who has done interesting work on ancient glass.

Materialytics will not be presenting at the conference in Frankfurt, but the topic is certainly relevant, and we look forward to seeing the conference proceedings.


*Most of our knowledge about menhirs derives from years of exposure to Asterix     e.g. http://www.asterix.com/licences/figurines/menhir.html