Physics for Cultural Heritage

What was the recipe for the first permanent ink in history used by the Egyptians for painted linen textiles so that it did not fade with washing? Why do some ancient plasters resist apparently much longer than modern ones? Can we ‘see’ the contents of a sealed vase without having to open it?

These are some of the questions that can be answered by following a scientific approach through archaeometric surveys. Because the use of a single technique provides partial information, an integrated approach, using multiple techniques, is often desirable because it provides a broader set of data. In fact, innovative data analysis approaches have proven to increase the effectiveness of multidisciplinary study campaigns.

The laboratory currently under development at the Centro Fermi will support integrated archaeometric approaches for Cultural Heritage studies by providing a combination of portable instrumentation and consolidated expertise in the use of European research large scale facilities through access-programs to advanced instrumentation of neutrons and synchrotron light.

Two Cultural Heritage Case Studies

A recent study has revealed new insight about the combustion processes in archaeological bone findings. The study demonstrates the effectiveness of using several vibrational spectroscopy techniques to identify combustion temperatures and therefore funeral practices adopted in the past.

Figura 2. Indagini su reperti ossei combusti [G. Festa et al, “First analysis of ancient burned human skeletal remains probed by neutron and optical vibrational spectroscopy”, Science Advances 5, eaaw1292 (2019)].
Another recent study conducted on 19 painted Egyptian textiles from the 15th century BC, allowed to identify the composition of ink used for the distinctive signs on linen. The ink was found to be metal-based, similar to a ferro-gallic ink, the introduction of which had so far been attributed to a more recent era (third century BC). The textiles are part of the Kha and Merit grave goods, preserved at the Museo Egizio in Turin. The tomb of the architect Kha and his wife Merit was discovered intact near the village of Deir el-Medina (Luxor) in the early 1900s; it is considered an unicum in Egyptology being the broadest and most complete non-regal grave goods ever brought to light.

Figura 3. Indagini su tessuti dell’Antico Egitto [G. Festa et al, “Egyptian metallic inks on textiles from the 15th century BCE unravelled by light and neutron probes.” Scientific Reports, 9, Article number: 7310 (2019)].