New archaeological ‘high definition’ sourcing sharpens understanding of the past
A new method of sourcing the origins of artefacts in high definition is set to improve our understanding of the past.
Dr Ellery Frahm at the University of Sheffield developed the new technology to better study Mesopotamian obsidian tools unearthed in Syria, where cultural heritage is threatened by the ongoing conflict.
The research brings five decades of research full circle and presents a significant advance in the field. While at the University of Sheffield from 1965 – 1972, Professor Lord Colin Renfrew developed a technique that matched stone tools made of obsidian, naturally occurring glass, to their volcanic origins based on their chemical fingerprints. Considered one of the greatest successes in scientific archaeology, matching artefacts to specific volcanoes was a significant leap forward in understanding trade, contact, and cultural change in the ancient world.
Nearly 50 years later, Dr Frahm’s work is the next major advance in obsidian sourcing. Previously it was only possible to match an artefact to a particular volcano or lava flow, sometimes covering dozens of chemically uniform square kilometres. Frahm’s new approach builds on traditional methods with additional magnetic analyses. The magnetic properties of obsidian vary on the scale of meters, not kilometres, enabling researchers to match an artefact to a particular quarry at the volcano. The result is much greater specificity of an artefact’s origin, enabling human behaviours in the past to be reconstructed with greater spatial resolution than previously possible.
“Sourcing artefacts in this way gives us a sharper picture of the past,” explained Frahm. “We have already used this approach to show how obsidian was collected from certain quarries at volcanoes and how ancient quarrying locations change over time. This approach provides a deeper insight into our understanding of past human behaviour and will hopefully enhance research into how different groups managed natural resources linked to their economies.”
Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the study for Dr Frahm and his collaborator, Dr Joshua Feinberg at the University of Minnesota, was the simplicity of the approach and how widely applicable it will be. “Our magnetic tests were chosen in part for their simplicity so that most rock magnetism laboratories could take the necessary measurements and apply this new approach worldwide. We did not want to develop a technique that could only be done in one or two laboratories in the world. It was important the approach be accessible, making it as ‘open source’ as possible.”
Development of this approach partly depended on the sheer quantities of specimens and artefacts studied, “This study involved more magnetic measurements of obsidian than all previously published studies combined,” explained Frahm. “The resulting picture revealed how to identify quarries of particular importance to Mesopotamian peoples, and it helps us to piece together their cultural significance.”
The cultural significance of artefacts to Syria’s heritage, which is under threat due to the current conflict, is an important part of Frahm’s research. “During my fieldwork in Syria, I identified some spectacular artefacts that should be curated and displayed to the Syrian public at the Deir ez-Zor archaeological museum.
“Unfortunately, Deir ez-Zor has been a centre of fighting since summer 2011. The last time I had an update, the museum had become a stronghold for the Syrian military, even with snipers on the roof, and it appears that when they pulled out last fall, the museum was essentially trashed. This has a doubly damaging effect on the country. Not only do many Syrians see archaeological sites and artefacts as part of their heritage, but also archaeological excavations put money into the local economy and employ local workers, helping people in rural villages make ends meet. Protecting Syrian heritage throughout this terrible conflict is an issue that needs attention from people who are in a position to help.”
Archaeology at the University of Sheffield
Department of Archaeology
Professor Lord Colin Renfrew
Professor Lord Renfrew, now Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, is a leading advocate for preventing looting, protecting archaeological sites, and fighting illicit sales of antiquities.
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
The University of Sheffield
With nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics, it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Staff and students at Sheffield are committed to helping discover and understand the causes of things - and propose solutions that have the power to transform the world we live in.
A member of the Russell Group, the University of Sheffield has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007), recognising the outstanding contribution by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
One of the markers of a leading university is the quality of its alumni and Sheffield boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students. Its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, Siemens, Yorkshire Water, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.
The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. The White Rose University Consortium (White Rose) is a strategic partnership between 3 of the UK's leading research universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Since its creation in 1997 White Rose has secured more than £100M into the Universities.
For further information please contact:
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046