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Archaeochemistry Techniques

Techniques and methods used by archaeochemists working on the Liang Bua project

If interesting residues are found by scientists when artefacts are screened in the laboratory, they will be sent for analysis by archaeochemists using spectroscopy and mass spectrometry techniques.

Vibrational spectroscopy (the study of the vibrations of molecules) involves the process of adding energy to molecules and measuring at what energy they vibrate. Two types include Raman spectroscopy and FTIR spectroscopy:

“So if I have a database of vibrations of a large number of molecules, I can select those that are of interest to me and I can compare it to known samples” (Dr Linda Prinsloo)
Chromatography and mass spectrometry (techniques used to separate and characterise individual molecules found in a specimen) helps to uncover the chemistry of organic residues preserved on artefacts and the chemical processes that occurred at a particular site. This is often the final analytical step, as they are destructive methods that require the residue to be isolated and the identified molecules separated from the artefact or sediment sample:
“Everything is made out of molecules, and so we can get a profile of the molecular identity of the things that we will find on the stone tools. It might help us understand what the hobbits ate, how they lived.” (Dr Susan Luong)

Multidisciplinary Input

Although working in a laboratory setting, the team of archaeochemists involved in the Liang Bua project contributed also to improving our understanding of the archaeological processes operating in the field. For example, they have developed a sampling protocol that governs how the samples should be collected in the field to minimise the chances of contamination.

Significant Findings

The work of archaeochemists has helped to identify molecules attached to stone tools as a result of people using these tools in the past.
“So, for instance, if someone were cutting meat with a tool, we would hope to find some remnants of bone, fatty acids, something like cholesterol on the artefact. While if they were working with plants, we would expect to find some cellulose, or ligand, or the ingredients of plant materials on the tools”. (Dr Linda Prinsloo)

Conversation starter

The work of archaeochemists requires a sterile environment, but an archaeological site is far from sterile (see 3.11 Contamination: Refining Methods). In light of this, consider the following questions:

  • How do processes of degradation and contamination affect the work of archaeochemists?

  • What can be done to minimise these effects?

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