College's new X-ray device to probe archeological samples

Analyzing sharp-force trauma, studying ceramic artifacts disinterred after centuries, disclosing the trace elements in soils—SUNY Oswego forensic anthropologist Kathleen Blake can think of many uses for portable X-ray equipment purchased with a National Park Service grant.

Kathleen Blake with new X-ray equipmentThe new instrument will enable faculty and student researchers to study samples in detail without liquefying, pulverizing or otherwise destroying them. “This device is widely used in archeological and museum studies,” Blake said.

Douglas Pippin, an assistant professor of anthropology and an archeologist, received the $49,500 grant with colleagues Paul Tomascak of the earth sciences faculty and Blake. He acknowledged that the new Bruker XRF Tracer III looks like a cross between a state police radar gun and a device for “Star Trek.”

The gun-like device came with a pump to create a vacuum, a small on-board computer for work in the field, a tripod and other attachments. It uses X-ray fluorescence to analyze the elements and their proportions in a sample.

“This is extremely low-dose,” Pippin said. “It’s for looking closely at the surface of a sample, to a depth of less than a centimeter.”

The researchers won the grant in conjunction with work the anthropology department is doing cataloging 160,000 Native American and other artifacts from archeological sites around the state. SUNY Oswego earlier received two grants totaling $1.5 million for work under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Blake, a visiting assistant professor who is on the research team for the NAGPRA project, worked in January as a visiting scientist under a fellowship with the Forensic Anthropology Unit of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. Much can be learned, she said, about injuries to bones, taphonomy (changes in organisms from time of death to discovery) and other subjects that the technology can illuminate.

“This will be so helpful to student projects, too,” she said. “For example, what happens after burial of a deer’s leg? What can it tell us about the amount of copper laid down by the blade that cut the bone? What kind of blade was it?”

PHOTO CAPTION: It’s elemental—Kathleen Blake of SUNY Oswego’s anthropology department displays a new low-dose device that uses X-ray fluorescence technology to analyze the elements in archeological samples. The instrument, obtained via a $49,500 National Park Service grant, can analyze the elements and their proportions in a sample without destroying it.

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(Posted: Mar 27, 2013)

Tags: research, archeology, anthropology