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Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry, Vol. 265, No.

2 (2005) 235240

Non-destructive research in archaeology


K. T. Bir*
Hungarian National Museum, H-1088 Budapest, Mzeum krt. 14., Hungary (Received October 12, 2004)

There is a growing interest in the application of scientific-physical, chemical etc. methods in archaeology. This is partly due to the fact that classical archaeology, based upon the form, style, decoration of the objects has reached its limits, to obtain new result and, the integration of other disciplines into the argumentation of archaeologists is needed. The other important reason is the development and availability of methods and equipment for non-destructive analyses, ways of gathering useful information on the chemical and mineral composition, age, and state of preservation of the objects which can be useful in their scientific appraisal. PGAA is one of the techniques eminently suited for this purpose.

Introduction Archaeology is a special discipline on the border of sciences and arts. It focuses on re-creating events of the past on the basis of material culture and physical remains of organic and inorganic substances associated with mankind. It is also special in the sense that the investigation process (excavation) destroys most of the information (context), i.e., the relation of the finds proper to each other and their environment. It is, therefore, referred to as an irreproducible experiment. Sophisticated methods of registering field observations, regular sampling, expertise and professional responsibility is required to preserve most of the volatile information coded in the layers and sediments of an archaeological site. Archaeological objects, finds receive a special treatment after their recovery. They are cleaned, assembled from fragments, conservated with chemicals, registered into charted lists, so-called inventory books, published and exhibited. After all these processes they have a special value which is partly expressed as commercial value, known from (mainly illicit) traffic and insurance. Most of their value, however, cannot be expressed in terms of money, it is authenticity and irreproducibility. In this process, it is partly desirable to know as much about the object as possible in terms of analytical sense as well, on the other hand, this should be done with minimal loss to the object and a possibility to repeat and further enhance the analysis should need or further aspects arise. Discussion Analytical approach to archaeological objects The analysis of archaeological objects by scientific methods is almost as old as the discipline of archaeology itself. It was confined, however, to very rare instances and special issues, more an exception than a rule.
* E-mail: tbk@ace.hu 02365731/USD 20.00 2005 Akadmiai Kiad, Budapest

The breakthrough event was undoubtedly the discovery and regular application of 14C dating, acknowledged later by Nobel-prize.1 A wide range of analytical techniques followed in various fields of archaeology: dating, prospecting, analysis of technology and provenance and reconstruction of coeval environment. These applications together build up a special discipline, archaeometry, rather loosely centred upon the application of scientific methods in the discovery, interpretation or the elaboration of archaeological objects and features.24 Archaeometry has its own periodicals, national and international events, research and training centres all over the world. Adopting an analytical approach to cultural heritage is a highly responsible task. The dangers are: destroying the objects, or irreproducible parts of the objects physically (Fig. 1). It is equally dangerous, drawing not adequately established or irrelevant conclusions from the analytical results which soon become part of the argumentation, supported by high-tech machinery lending an air of objectivity to the hypotheses. The multidisciplinary character of the work sets it on the razors edge: what is really characteristic, distinctive and representative for certain classes of objects, certain types of raw material. Most of the main-stream scholars in arts and archaeology in Hungary have considered archaeometry to be inconceivable and superfluous till most recent times. The situation is slowly changing, thanks to a great extent to the 31 st International Symposium on Archaeometry, held in Budapest 1998. This event convinced many of the prominent Hungarian archaeologists that scientific analysis can contribute essentially to the value of evidence they work on, that working in teams set up from experts of various disciplines might work efficiently together. It is worth training young people basics of sciences (on the art and archaeology side) and humanities (for the analysts). As a result, special courses, even departments have come to existence on the universities, series of scholarly debates started in the Hungarian National Museum and other

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