Uncovering ancient history in the laboratory

Friday, 24 January, 2014

The world of archaeology has changed considerably since the days when wealthy enthusiasts such as Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site he believed was ancient Troy while Arthur Evans unearthed the spectacular Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete. While the shovel and the trowel are still important tools for finding ancient structures and artefacts, many of the exciting discoveries and breakthroughs are today being made in laboratories - a long way from the ancient remains.

To support today’s high-tech archaeology, a new generation of scientific researchers is emerging who are knowledgeable in archaeo-metallurgy, materials science, ceramic technology, DNA analysis etc. - to name but a few of the advanced techniques now available to throw light on the dating and usage of ancient sites hidden from view for hundreds or thousands of years.

Under the EC-funded NARNIA project an international group of universities and specialist private companies has been brought together to support young researchers wanting to enhance their skills in this area and develop long-term careers.

NARNIA - New Archaeological Research Network for Integrating Approaches to Ancient Material Studies - is an innovative endeavour to establish a highly-specialised research network to study ancient materials from the Eastern Mediterranean, a region of great historical significance in the evolution of Europe and the Middle East.

Launched in 2010, the four-year project is supported through a €4.6 million grant from the European Commission under the Marie Curie Initial Training Networks (ITN) programme.

NARNIA’s raison d’être is to establish a broad partnership of research institutions and private enterprises. The project brings together university archaeology departments in Cyprus, the UK (London, Sheffield), France, Belgium and Jordan, together with research centres and specialist private organisations in Greece, Cyprus and the UK.

Through this comprehensive mobility scheme, young researchers will have the opportunity to continue their research careers at high profile universities and well-established private enterprises while working on research projects of great historical interest.

“We aim to give these future archaeologists an awareness of the recent advances in technology and an understanding of their implications for theory and practice in the heritage environment,” explained project coordinator, Dr Vasiliki Kassianidou, Associate Professor at the Archaeological Research Unit, Department of History and Archaeology, University of Cyprus.

“This well-structured research network aims to improve the career prospects for young researchers, develop their lab-based skills in the study of ancient materials, while contributing to the history and archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean basin, a region of great historical, cultural and geopolitical significance.”

Over 48 months, sixteen early-stage researchers (equivalent to PhD candidates) and three experienced researchers are being trained to integrate theory and archaeological sciences for the study of a variety of material categories, including ceramics, metals, glass and mosaics, from primarily Cyprus, Greece and Jordan.

The Eastern Mediterranean is an area rich in history and regularly throws up intriguing new finds which need the application of the latest scientific techniques and methodologies to properly understand their age, origin and function.

The discovery of the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of south-west Turkey in 1982, for example, has led to great leaps in the understanding of the cultures and trading relations in the ancient past. The ship’s cargo of goods which included copper and tin ingots, jars with glass beads, olives, resin, ceramics, jewellery, weapons etc. has been extensively studied since then under laboratory conditions.

Scientific dating of the hull and wood products showed that 15 metre transport ship sank some 3,300 years ago (built circa 1300 BC). Analysis of the contents has demonstrated the extent of trading links from northern Europe to Egypt via Cyprus (a major copper producer in the period) and extending as far west as Sicily. The ship transported products from nine or ten different cultures.

“The study of the copper production and trade is one of the best examples of interdisciplinary study as it starts in the field with what may be considered landscape archaeology and ends up in the lab for the application of various chemical and microscopic analyses to try and understand the technology of production and origin,” explains Dr Kassianidou.

“Understanding patterns of trade in that era is another line of research which brings the most interesting results. It identifies, for example, that Cyprus was the most probable source for the copper used for the oxhide ingots found in Sardinia, France and Germany etc. This is helping with our understanding of the long-distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze and early Iron Age,” Dr Kassianidou says.

“The new generation of archaeological researchers we are encouraging will continue this good work into the future and help us better understand the fragments of our ancient history that we are unearthing in this region every day.”

New Archaeological Research Network for Integrating Approaches to Ancient Material Studies
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