Physics for Cultural Heritage

What is the recipe for the first permanent ink in history with which the ancient Egyptians painted linen fabrics so that it would not fade with washing? Why do some ancient plasters apparently resist much longer than modern ones? Can we ‘see’ the contents of a sealed ancient jar without having to open it? These are some of the questions that can be answered by following a scientific approach to archaeometric investigations. While the use of a single technique provides specific information, often partial, about the object under investigation, an integrated approach can be more effective by using several techniques and innovative methods of analysis for the interpretation of the results.

Archaeometry at CREF

The laboratory currently under development at CREF is dedicated to the study of historical and artistic objects, through advanced instrumentation and an integrated approach to address archaeological and conservation problems. The laboratory, housed in the basement rooms of the Palazzina in via Panisperna, aims to provide a combination of portable instrumentation and consolidated experience in the use of european large-scale facilities through access programs to advanced neutron and synchrotron radiation instrumentation.


X-ray fluorescence spectrum of mineral pigments.

Starting in 2019, the first portable instrumentation for integrated analyses of X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy was installed and tested at the laboratory. During the second half of 2019 and into 2020, the requirements relating to radioprotection and fire prevention for the laboratory were finalized. Specific documentation was then sent to competent authorities, and currently the instrumentation is fully licensed to be also used outside the laboratory to provide in-situ measurements such as at museums, restoration laboratories, and other interested locations in the context of scientific research collaborations. Furthermore, the first studies of organic and inorganic pigments were carried out for the identification of the optimal instrument set-up and the creation of a specific pigment database (XRF and Raman), through the analysis of powder samples of known composition also used in ancient times. The final determination of the detection and quantification limits of the X-Raman instrumentation is still underway through the continuing analysis of ad-hoc samples. Measurements of real samples were also carried out, including the study of metal coins from the Roman period, fragments of polychrome plasters, and glass from the Punic age.

Together with research activities carried out using portable instrumentation, experiments were also carried out at large-scale facilities such as the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. These addressed application such as: new dimensions in forensic profiling; imaging burned human bones at IMAT; the study of chronic mercury exposure in ancient populations from the cinnabar mining; and Bronze Age metalwork at the British Museum.

Study of archaeological bone finds through an integrated approach of vibrational and neutron spectroscopies [G. Festa et al, Science Advances 5, eaaw1292 (2019)].

Data analyses of measurement campaigns carried out in previous reference periods are also ongoing.

In the next three years, we will focus on the development of the laboratory to expand the instrumentation available, together with the full implementation of research and scientific dissemination activities in the context of the study of materials of historical and artistic interest. The strengthening and expansion of the laboratory’s network including museums, on the regional, national, and international levels, as well as other research and cultural institutions, will be carried out through new agreements aimed at joint research activities. The expansion of the laboratory dedicated to cultural heritage will be carried out in the framework of the financed regional project ISIS@MACH (MAteriali Compositi, Hub of ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source, Oxfordshire (UK)). In this context new, compact and portable instrumentation such as Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), X-ray diffraction, and an X-ray tomograph will be installed. We also intend to continue work regarding the establishment of a database for organic and inorganic pigments by means of portable instrumentation and the study of the detection limits of the machines, as well as the development of new analytical procedures.

New measurement campaigns will be planned at European research facilities for neutron and synchrotron radiation and will be integrated into the study of objects of historical and artistic interest at the CREF laboratory through experiments in collaboration with the museums and associated stakeholders.

Given the current developments in machine learning applied to cultural heritage, CREF has also started collaborations with international organizations operating in the research area, to meet the challenges of cultural heritage in an innovative way. Artificial intelligence (AI) has a growing impact in diverse technological areas such as speech recognition, automation, economics, etc. Machine learning (ML) is a current application of AI based on the concept by which the system is able to learn from example and experience, without being explicitly programmed.

The approach is to provide data to a generic algorithm, and, through such algorithms, machines create the logic based on the data provided. Machine-learning algorithms generally operate through the use of large data sets (also known as Big Data) and designed to learn through associations on the data set which can also be applied to solve problems inherent to cultural heritage. The CREF, in line with the current trends of multidisciplinary research for cultural heritage, has started collaborating with international organizations working in the fields of machine learning, artificial intelligence, complexity, and data science.

Outreach activities are also ongoing for the study of polychromies (Project Invisible Colors) for the realization of an educational event helded online the 9th of December

Regarding scientific dissemination activities, CREF received funding from the Lazio Region for the VEROSH—Virtual ExploRation Of Science History project for the development of an immersive virtual-reality experience to be integrated into the museum. Given the affinity between the activities of this project in the framework of the CREF Museum and the technological skills of the laboratory, the activities will be carried out jointly.

Collaborations and synergies

  • Anthropological Service – Soprintendenza Archeologia del Lazio e dell’Etruria Meridionale
  • Bauart – Basel (Switzerland)
  • British Museum (London, UK)
  • Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (Venice)
  • Centro Restauro Venaria Reale (Turin)
  • CNR (IPCF)
  • ICTP – International Centre for Theoretical Physics (Trieste)
  • ISIS Spallation Neutron Source (Oxford, UK)
  • Museo Archeologico Lilibeo (Trapani)
  • Museo Egizio (Turin)
  • Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Florence)
  • PICAMPUS (Rome)
  • Paul Scherrer Institut, Villigen – Switzerland
  • Sapienza Università di Roma (Rome)
  • Sony Computer Science Lab (Parigi, Francia)
  • Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata” (Rome)
  • Università di Coimbra (Portugal)
  • Università di Siena
  • University of Palermo

Funded projects

  • ISIS@MACH: founded by Regione Lazio. Project coordinated by Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”.
  • INVISIBLE COLOURS Project: founded by the European Physical Society.
  • VEROSH – Virtual EploRation Of Science History: founded by Regione Lazio.
  • Conferences
  • ‘Dalla Conoscenza alla Valorizzazione: il Ruolo dell’archeometria nei Musei’, Associazione Italiana di Archeometria, Reggio Calabria, 27 – 29 Marzo 2019, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
  • FameLab 2019 – Selezioni Locali Roma, 26 febbraio 2019.
  • Special Session “Neutron Methods for Cultural Heritage” at IMEKO TC-4 International Conference on Metrology for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage”, Florence, 4-6 December 2019
  • Special Session “HANDHELD AND MOBILE INSTRUMENTATION IN CULTURAL HERITAGE RESEARCH” at IMEKO TC-4 International Conference on Metrology for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage”, Trento, 22-24 October 2020

Training activity

In the last 3 years, training and research activities were carried out in collaboration with Italian and foreign universities as briefly described below:

  • Research and training activities in the context of the Master (SEAHA – Center for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, and PhD thesis at the University College London (Agreement for research and training activities in collaboration with Università degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata, CREF and University College London).
  • Study of the state of conservation of Roman bronze coins coming from the Palatine area (Curiae Veteres – “Attendance of the sanctuary in the Late Republican age”, study conducted by the Department of Antiquities, Sapienza University of Rome), degree thesis at Univ. of Bologna).
  • Advanced training course “Analytical Probing with Neutrons” within the “School of Neutron Science and Instrumentation”, Ettore Majorana Foundation and Center for Scientific Culture, Erice scheduled for 12-17 July 2020 and postponed due to the COVID-19 emergency


  • [2020] C. Scatigno, R. Senesi, G. Festa and C. Andreani. Chemometrics tools for Advanced Spectroscopic Analyses. IOP Publishing Journal of Physics: Conference series, 2020 1548 012030
  • [2020] G. Festa, S. L. Lämmlein, R. Senesi, J. Price, C. Chiesa, C. Scatigno, D. Mannes, L. Arcidiacono, R. A. Robinson and C. Andreani, “Effect of coating systems as a barrier to humidity for lutherie woods studied by neutron radiography”, Journal of Cultural Heritage 43 (2020) 255–260
  • [2020] G. Festa, G. Romanelli, R. Senesi, L. Arcidiacono, C. Scatigno, F. Stewart Parker, M. P. M. Marques, C. Andreani, Neutrons for Cultural Heritage – Techniques, Sensors, and Detection, Sensors 2020, 20(2), 502
  • May 2020 Neutron Image of the Month, Figure published in the paper: “Neutrons for Cultural Heritage—Techniques, Sensors, and Detection”, Giulia Festa, Giovanni Romanelli , Roberto Senesi, Laura Arcidiacono, Claudia Scatigno, Stewart F. Parker, M. P. M. Marques, Carla Andreani, Sensors 2020, 20(2), 502;
  • [2019] L. Arcidiacono, M. Martinón-Torres, R. Senesi, A. Scherillo, C. Andreani and G. Festa, “Cu-based alloys as a benchmark for T-PGAA quantitative analysis at ISIS pulsed neutron and muon source”, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2020,35, 331-340
  • [2019] G. Festa, C. Andreani, M. Baldoni, V. Cipollari, C. Martínez-Labarga, F. Martini, O. Rickards, M.F. Rolfo, L. Sarti, N. Volante, R. Senesi, F.R. Stasolla, S.F. Parker, A.R. Vassalo, P. Mamede, L.A.E. Batista de Carvalho and M.P.M. Marques, Old burned bones tell us about past cultures, Spectroscopy Europe, Vol. 31, 4
  • [2019] G. Festa, C. Andreani, M. Baldoni, V. Cipollari, C. Martínez-Labarga, F. Martini, O. Rickards, M.F. Rolfo, R. Senesi, F.R. Stasolla, S.F. Parker, A.R. Vassalo, L.A.E. Batista de Carvalho and M.P.M. Marques. First analysis of ancient burned human skeletal remains probed by neutron and optical vibrational spectroscopy, Science Advances 5, eaaw1292 (2019)
  • [2019] L. Arcidiacono, A. Parmentier, G. Festa, M. Martinon-Torres, C. Andreani, R. Senesi, “Validation of a new data-analysis software for multiple-peak analysis of gamma spectra at ISIS pulsed Neutron and Muon Source.”, Nuclear Inst. and Methods in Physics Research, A., Nuclear Inst. and Methods in Physics Research, A 938 (2019) 51–55
  • [2019] G. Festa, T. Christiansen, V. Turina, M. Borla, J. Kelleher, L. Arcidiacono, L. Cartechini, R.C. Ponterio, C. Scatigno, R. Senesi and C. Andreani, Egyptian metallic inks on textiles from the 15th century BCE unravelled by light and neutron probes. Scientific Reports, 9, Article number: 7310 (2019)
  • [2019] G. Festa, C. Andreani, F. D’Agostino, V. Forte, M. Nardini, A. Scherillo, C. Scatigno, R. Senesi and L. Romano, Neutrons for Pottery and Firing Technology at the Sumerian Site of Abu Tbeirah (Southern Iraq). Geosciences 9, 74, 2019. doi:10.3390/geosciences9020074