Towards non-destructive analysis in archaeological and conservation science

Richard E. Jones and Brendan Derham

This three-year project was initiated in 2007 and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The research network whilst based at Glasgow is formed around a diverse group of researchers operating mainly in Greece.

The aim of the project is to develop an integrated system of robust non-destructive Laser-based analytical techniques – laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and Raman spectroscopy - and for the routine chemical analysis of paintings and archaeological artefacts for their inorganic and organic components. These techniques are also being developed for the analysis of soils as a technique of geochemical survey with a particular aim of locating ‘agro-industrial’ activity. An important aspect of the project is to compare the performance of laser-based techniques with those of other techniques, such as XRF.

The project is organising a conference in September 2010, ‘Polluting the environment in antiquity’, and has recently carried out analysis of a wide range of objects at the Hunterian Museum and Glasgow Museums. 

The LIBS set-up (courtesy Demetris Anglos, FORTH-IESL)

Collaborating institutions/personnel

Current projects

  • Minoan to post-Roman wall paintings in Crete: a comparative study of their materials and techniques; initiated by Polly Westlake. In collaboration with Dr D Anglos, Dr E Kouloumbi and Prof. V. Perdikatsis (Technical University, Chania).
  • XRF analysis of soils at Ancient Sikyon. In collaboration with Prof Y Lolos and Dr Roger Doonan. 
  • Frankish-period coins at Ancient Corinth; an analysis programme with LIBS and XRF. In collaboration with the American School’s Excavations at Corinth, Dr Julian Baker (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), Dr D Anglos and Dr A Karydas. 
  • Analysis of organics in pottery and soil for information on craft activities and natural product and food processing in antiquity. In collaboration with Dr Scott Stevenson (Strathclyde University) and the Proteomics Group in the Biological & Life Sciences Faculty, Glasgow University.
  • Analysis of a wide range of objects held in the University’s Hunterian Museum and Library and in Glasgow Museums


  • Derham B, Westlake P, Anglos D, Sarris A,  Jones R, 2008, Towards  non- and  micro-destructive analysis  in archaeological and conservation science:  the role of  laser-based techniques, 5th Greek Archaeometry Symposium, Athens.  
  • Siozos P, Westlake P, Jones R, Derham B and Anglos D, 2009, Analytical studies of painted plaster based on LIBS and micro-Raman, European mass spectrometry and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy Conference, Rome. 
  • Doonan R, Derham B, Jones R, Smith H and Parker-Pearson M, 2009, The implications of portable analysis for the organisation of archaeological practice: A comparative study of P analysis using HHpXRF and ICP-OES, Geoarchaeology 2009 Conference, Sheffield.

Conference: Polluting the environment in antiquity

Glasgow, September 2010

This two-day conference, which takes up the interest that the project has in the analysis of soils, focuses on geochemical studies of soils which have been ‘polluted’ by some activity in antiquity. It builds upon the growing archaeological interest in identifying locations of craft and agricultural processing activities in the archaeological record.

We intend to set the scene with presentations by geochemists who have tackled this issue, relating for instance to metallurgical activity or agricultural processing and manuring. These presentations will set out the analytical techniques and approaches, as well as the results.

The second part of the programme draws on the evidence from excavation or survey for an activity, probably weakly defined archaeologically but whose ‘pollution’ is likely to have left some kind of signature in the surrounding soil. The activity could be tanning or the production of oil, resin, sugar, dye and perfume. The purpose of this second part is to integrate the archaeological evidence with the potential of geochemical analysis. We expect to look at examples from the Mediterranean but not exclusively so.

More information

Workshops in 2008

The project organised two workshops in May 2008:

  1. To assess the performance and applicability of LIBS (and related techniques) in archaeological and conservation science; to review the kind and range of information obtained from the analyses, and to compare LIBS with the more established technique of X-ray fluorescence. Together with practical demonstrations, these issues were discussed at the Institute for Aegean Prehistory’s (INSTAP) Centre in East Crete. See the (PDF)
  2. To consider the locating of ancient craft practices and agricultural processing by non-invasive science-based and archaeological methods.  In particular to review the role of LIBS and other techniques in the analysis of soil as a means of geochemical survey. This workshop was held at the Fitch Laboratory, British School at Athens. See the (PDF)