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UK lab helps reveal secrets of 3000 year old Egyptian vases

11 April 2018

Scientists have used neutron techniques at the UK’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to non-invasively investigate the contents of two containers from the tomb of a married couple who walked the streets of ancient Egypt in 1400BC. This was at a time when Thebes in Egypt was the largest city in the World.

Jump forward 3,500 years to 2018 and UK scientists and their Italian colleagues were able to create reconstructions of the inner parts of both vases to understand their structure and elemental composition without touching, damaging or taking samples from either artefact.

The two vases were discovered in 1906, when the Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli and the Inspector of Antiquities at Luxor, Arthur Weigall, opened the door of the inner chamber of tomb TT8 located on the cliffs surrounding the ancient village of Deir el Medina in Egypt.

Tomb TT8 was the burial and undisturbed resting place of an 18th Dynasty royal architect named Kha and his wife Merit. The two artefacts being analysed at the ISIS neutron beam facility in Oxfordshire were a sealed alabaster vase and a metallic pail, both taken from a collection of grave objects found at the TT8 tomb.

The research team, led by Guilia Festa from Italy’s Centro Fermi Historical Museum of Physics and Dr Triestino Minniti from STFC’s ISIS Neutron & Muon Source used non-invasive chemical-physical techniques to analyse the contents and composition of the vase and the pail without damaging either item.

Scientists used the IMAT instrument to carry out Neutron Radiography (NR), Neutron Tomography (NT) and Prompt Gamma Activation Analysis (PGAA), whilst the ENGIN-X beamline provided further Neutron Diffraction (ND) measurements.

Dr Triestino Minniti, ISIS IMAT instrument scientist said: “It is so rewarding to take twenty first century technology and use it to better understand 3000 year old materials.

“By utilising the unique capabilities of both the neutron imaging instrument IMAT and the consolidated capabilities of ENGIN-X we were able to non-invasively study these precious artefacts.

“Most exciting of all is how these research techniques can help us to uncover further secrets from ancient Egypt and beyond.”

Neutron Tomography (NT) and 3D volume rendering was used to image the contents of the alabaster vase without unsealing it. The data from ENGIN-X and IMAT showed the vase contains organic material, along with an alabaster cone-shape plug covered with linen stripes.

Diffraction scans were used to identify the composition of the pail - a type of elaborate bucket-shaped vessel usually with a handle on top.

The research revealed that the pail is made up of two different alloys with two halves joined together by rivets. The lower part is composed of a low tin bronze with around 2% tin whilst the upper part is made of a 9% tin bronze.

This research has increased the team’s knowledge about the contents of these vases and their functions, which was previously unknown. The team hope that the applied experimental methods used in their study will now have a further impact across many disciplines including materials and environmental science, palaeontology and archaeology.

The team is now undertaking further analysis of alabaster, textiles and wood artefacts taken from the TT8 grave.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000