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Neutrons & Heritage Science

Neutron scattering is a non-destructive way to look at ancient artefacts and fossils without having to break into them or damage them in any way. Consequently, ISIS and ILL are frequently used in heritage science

You can find out more about the heritage science work carried out at ISIS.


Origins of Pompeii-style artefacts from Kent

Neutron scattering offers a non-destructive way to analyse rare Roman objects 

Road and civil engineering projects rely on archaeologists to assess the significance of ancient remains that may be disturbed and plan how to protect them. 

During work to widen the A2 in Kent, two high status Roman pit-burials were discovered containing 2,000-year-old bronze artefacts.  The wine-mixing vessel, jugs and ceremonial pan-shaped objects are among the best examples ever seen in Britain.

These 1st century AD artefacts are similar to ancient remains found at Pompeii so the excavators wanted to know if they were imported from Italy or manufactured locally using similar techniques.

Using neutron scattering, the items found in Kent are being compared at a molecular level with similar items from Pompeii. The technique allows detailed analysis of rare objects without cutting out a sample of the material for testing. The measurements are extremely delicate and non-destructive, so the objects are unharmed by the analysis. 

“Neutron scattering experiments have helped us to characterise different Roman metalworking practices. They have allowed us to distinguish between goods imported from southern Italy and copies produced in the UK by skilled local craftsmen.” 

Dana Goodburn-Brown, ancient metals specialist, Oxford Archaeology  

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The finest steel

Museums across Europe are using neutron techniques to understand how Japanese swords in their collections were made during the 14th to 17th centuries. 

Japanese swords are made from some of the finest steels known. Skilled craftsmen used the best available materials in order to provide the correct mechanical characteristics for every part of the blade according to its function.

These ancient weapons were hand-made without any of the scientific processes used in modern steel manufacturing.

Non-destructive neutron scattering measurements map the distribution and chemical composition of hard and soft steel through the blades. With many swords not carrying identification of the sword-maker, neutron measurements reveal characteristics of the sword-making traditions and the steel-making process. 

“The sword blades are of incredibly high quality comparable to those that are made today. In Japan in the 14thcentury, they were making them by instinct, and we’re very interested in how they were making such high quality steel without modern control processes in place.”

Jeremy Uden, senior conservator, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford


Britain's bloodiest battlefield

Fresh thinking about key events in the War of the Roses is coming from neutron scattering measurements of battlefield weapons 

The Battle of Towton, fought near Tadcaster in Yorkshire in 1461, saw up to 28,000 soldiers killed on a single day and was the bloodiest conflict of the War of the Roses.

Archaeologists are using neutron scattering to analyse bronze cannon fragments and lead shot found during a field survey at the North Yorkshire battlefield. 

The fragments and the shot fired from them contain large amounts of lead, which absorbs x-rays very strongly. Neutron scattering techniques are the best-suited method for looking at these samples since they can see through lead.

Structure analysis has revealed that the fragments were made of two different alloys and were from two different guns. The guns were probably not found intact because it was common for guns at the time to explode in the user's hands because of metal casting faults. 

The neutron scattering experiments are helping to piece together the history of the battles, giving clues to how and where the weapons were made. 

"The manufacturing of firearms in the 15th century was notoriously unreliable. The neutron scattering data we have gathered can help us to establish how and where the guns were made.”
Tim Sutherland, archaeologist, University of York

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Neutrons homepage

Last updated: 30 April 2018


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