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Over the last decades, neutron, photon, and ion beams have been established as an innovative and attractive investigative approach to characterise cultural-heritage materials. ANSTO offers a wide range of unique nuclear-beam techniques to look at the structure and dynamics of materials from the atomic to the macroscopic scale providing complementary information. These powerful and versatile tools are superb probes to be used in tandem with traditional methods to extract maximum information from an object without the need for sampling or invasive procedures.


Nuclear techniques for cultural heritage

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Current major research themes

Aboriginal Art
Archaeometallurgy in the Near East
Arms and Armour
Bronzes Age artefacts
Egyptian mummies
Rock Art dating with nuclear techniques


Aboriginal Art

Natural mineral pigments are significant in Aboriginal Australian culture, and applied to a variety of natural matrices. Prof. Rachel Popelka-Filcoff at Flinders University is using ANSTO capabilities to develop a non-destructive approach to characterize Indigenous Australian ochre pigments. A combination of neutron activation analysis (NAA), X-ray fluorescence microscopy and near-IR spectroscopy can be used to “geochemically fingerprint” natural material pigments to gain an insight into their complex mineralogy and elemental composition, and to trace their provenance. Read more 

Ochre research Cultural Heritage
Prof. Rachel Popelka-Filcoff (left) is investigating ochre composition on Aboriginal artefacts such as this bark painting (center). An example of false colour XFM map of the bark painting with Fe (red), Rb (green) and Ca (blue) is reported (right).

Archaeometallurgy in the Near East

This is an ongoing archaeometric investigation that aims to understand the ancient manufacturing methods adopted in the production of iron artefacts from Saruq al-Hadid, an early Iron Age site located in the desert region of Dubai. Despite the site’s remote location from all known regional ore deposits, the site features abundant metallurgical residues from copper, gold and iron-making metallurgical operations. The team led by Prof. Lloyd Weeks at the University of New England is characterizing iron artefacts from Saruq al-Hadid by using a combination of standard analytical methods and neutron techniques at ANSTO to obtain infomation on the origins, spread and adoption of ferrous metallurgy in Arabia and the Near East more widely.

Arms and Armour

This research theme is devoted to the non-invasive investigation of ancient technology evolved by different cultures for the production of weapons during centuries. We are currently studying a set of Samurai’s swords, part of the East Asian Collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney, with the aim to non-destructively characterize their laminated structure through a synergic combination of neutron tomography, diffraction and residual stress analyses. Analysis and comparison of all collected results allows drawing conclusion about variability or similarity of the actual production techniques of the Japanese swords. Read more

Katana_Cultural Heritage
On the left, a katana from the collection of the MAAS [Photo:Michael Myers]. On the right, a cross-section of the neutron tomography and a false colours map of the longitudinal residual stress component providing infomation on the bulk microstructure of the blade.

Bronze Age artefacts

The focus is on Cypriot Bronze Age knife and other weapon blades from a corpus of artefacts held by a number of institutions in Australia. A number of the blades were found on excavation to be bent from Early/Middle Bronze Age burial sites at Bellapais Vounous, Cyprus. The aim of the study is to provide, by means of non-destructive neutron residual stress analysis, likely insights into fabrication methodologies of the knives and determine the stage in the life of each knife blade at which bending occurred. Read more 

Cypriot bronze age knife_ Cultural heritage
A Cypriot knife is positioned for analysis. The region of interests (ROIs) are highlighted in the center image. Profiles of the residual stresses (transverse and longitudinal components) through thickness at ROI 2 are reported. 


Egyptian mummies

Neutron and X-ray computed tomography have being used for the forensic analysis of Egyptian mummies from the collection of the Australian Institute of Archaeology. This study aims to determine the condition of death, understand the mechanical aspects of ancient medical practice and investigate the processes involved in the mummification process. Read more 


Mummy head_Cultural Heritage
On the left, DINGO instrument scientist Joseph Bevitt aligning the specimen for neutron-CT analysis. On the right, tomographic reconstruction of the mummified child’s head, with teeth highlighted for dental studies. 

Rock art dating with nuclear techniques

A new technique, developed at ANSTO’s Centre for Accelerator Science, has made it possible to produce some of the first reliable radiocarbon dates for Australian rock art. The approach involves extracting calcium oxalate from a mineral crust growing on the surface of rock art. It has been recently applied for dating samples from the sites in western Arnhem Land. Read more 

Rock Art dating_Cultural Heritage
On the left, Aboriginal rock art from western Arnhem Land depicts style known as Northern Running Figures - Photo: Tristen Jones. On the right, Dr Vladimir Levchenko taking micro photographs of the oxalate crust at one of the the sites. 



In collaboration with the Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies (ACANS) at Macquarie University in Sydney (AU), we are conducting an investigation on incuse silver coins. Incuse refers to a particular type of coinage that was developed by Greek colonies in South Italy during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.. A synergic combination of different neutron techniques has applied to shed new light on the minting method evolved by ancient cities of Magna Graecia through a non-invasive characterization of macro and microscopic features imprinted by the metallurgical process. Read more 


Coins_Cultural heritage
Combining neutron techniques on an incuse stater from Metapontum, c. 550-500 BC. From left to right: photographic image; false colour map of the thickness of the silver layer with a cut throught the reconstructed tomography exposing the copper core; pole figures along the (111) plane of silver. 


In partnership with several Australian museums and art galleries, ANSTO is contributing to the study of artists’ materials and methods, assisting art restorers, and providing new evidence in cases where the identity of an artist is unclear. Infrared microspectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence microscopy and neutron autoradiography can be exploited to characterize pigments, map hidden layers of paintings, determine the state of conservation and understand the mechanism of alteration of materials. Read more 


Degas_Cultural Heritage
A Hidden Portrait by Edgar Degas.On the left, visible light image. On the right, false colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps.