What is Archaeometry/Archaeological Science?

What material is it? How was the object constructed? Where is the raw material from? Is it authentic? Can it be dated?

In its broadest sense, "archaeometry" (or "archaeological science") represents the interface between archaeology and the natural and physical sciences. This interdisciplinary field requires close collaboration between archaeologists, art historians, museum curators, and scientists who apply modern instrumental techniques to extract structural and compositional information from ancient materials. Applications range from archaeological fieldwork to conservation of museum objects and historic monuments, including topics such as paleodiet, early tool use, provenance of ceramics and metals, prospection and geoarchaeology, dating, and art forgery.

Early archaeometric research was dominated by dating, technological, and provenance studies of inorganic materials (stone, ceramics, and metals). As the field has grown, new applications in biochemistry, soil science, paleopathology, medicine, and computer-aided reconstruction have attracted a host of new specialists and encouraged research on organic materials ranging from ancient DNA to plant phytoliths (plant skeletons). Similarly, advances in geophysical prospection and geochemistry have led to increased representation from those fields in archaeological excavation and laboratory analysis.

How Do You Become an Archaeometrist?

Many archaeologists begin with archaeology degrees (from programs in anthropology, art history, classics, history, etc.) and then acquire laboratory training in techniques such as stable isotope analysis of bone, neutron activation analysis of ceramics, or microwear analysis of stone tools. Other archaeometrists trained initially in the physical or natural sciences collaborate with archaeologists, art historians, and museum professionals on interdisciplinary projects.

Now there are training programs in several countries for students who wish to specialize in archaeometry.

Examples of Archaeometry (Links for Students)

At the University of Illinois, the ATAM has engaged in several archaeometric projects that illustrate the range of archaeometry from field archaeology to museology and art history. These include a non-destructive study of an Egyptian mummy to find out about the age, sex, cause of death, diet, and social status of the person inside the wrappings, and several pre-conservation and authenticity studies at the Krannert Art Museum, most of which appear on a separate web site, Science in the Art Museum.

ATAM faculty teach one course, Anthropology 221, "Materials and Civilization: An Overview of Archaeometry," that includes debates on such topics as the Shroud of Turin, the Greek kouros statue at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, and the arrival of the First Americans on our continent. The readings for these debates expose students to conflicting points of view: Can you accept scientific data that is contrary to art historical evidence? Why or why not? How do you eliminate personal bias from scientific (and other) study? Why can't modern scientific analysis answer all the questions posed by art historians and archaeologists? For more information on the debates and the resources the students use, see debates, syllabus, and web links.

ATAM's current work centers on provenance studies of North American stone artifacts using a PIMA spectrometer. This project is a collaboration between several University of Illinois units.

More Information About Archaeometry

Societies and symposia for archaeometry and archaeological science exist now in several countries, for example the Society for Archaeological Sciences in the United States and the International Symposium on Archaeometry.

Beginning in 2009, the SAS now has an archaeometry blog.

Key archaeometric journals include Archaeometry, the Journal of Archaeological Science, and Geoarchaeology: An International Journal. Many other journals such as American Antiquity and the Journal of Field Archaeology contain articles on both archaeology and archaeometry.