Photographs of the fossil samples (a) oyster shell, (b) shark tooth, (c) brachiopod

Antiquities analysis requires a balance between scientific inquiry and preservation. Parts of artifacts or artwork can be destroyed by investigative techniques, forever altering priceless objects of the past.

A new low-energy X-ray technique allows analysis of surface and paints on ancient artifacts, without any surface preparation, according to a new study in the journal Acta Crystallographica A.

The “energy-dispersive” variety of X-ray diffraction penetrates just a few microns, using approximately 6 keV – without altering the delicate surface structures, according to the British-Belgian team.

It could even be used to detect artwork forgeries, they add.

“What makes this method really unique is that the shape and texture of the sample become immaterial,” said Graeme Hansford, lead author, from the University of Leicester. “In paintings, the type of pigment used frequently yields useful insights into methods of production and the organization of ancient industries, as well as restricting the possible date of manufacture. This could help to determine if the provenance of an artifact is as purported.”

The experimental technique was equipped on beamline B18 at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire.

The team assessed traditional minerals, moving then onto the analysis of fossil samples like a Jurassic oyster shell from a quarry in the United Kingdom.

The next samples were from archaeological finds: a 6th century series of mosaic tiles from the Roman baths at Sagalassos in Turkey, a Roman coin from the height of the Empire, and a 16th century mortar made of lime.

They found that the value of their technique was that some basic information could be determined by the sample – without harming the objects in question at all.

“The back-reflection EDXRD technique is inherently a surface-analysis method and this factor may be a limitation for some samples,” they write. “The primary application of the technique is likely to be in the field of cultural heritage studies for which the avoidance of the need to prepare samples in any way is an overwhelming advantage.”