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The Museum Conservation Institute- Technical Studies


Technology, Provenance, and Conservation of Archaeological and Historical Materials

Research at MCI over the past 30 years has established the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) as one of the leading centers in the world for studies related to the technology, provenance, and conservation of archaeological and historical materials. This research area relies heavily on advanced analytical instrumentation and imaging techniques in order to address archaeological questions and conservation issues. Important analytical techniques include stable isotope mass spectrometry, laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and 3D imaging, which — among others — are all available in MCI’s state-of-the-art analytical laboratories. Research focused on archaeological materials fits into the larger Smithsonian theme of Valuing World Cultures.
MCI’s archaeological research group includes Jeff Speakman (Head of Technical Studies/Archaeologist) with expertise in inorganic studies of archaeological ceramics and pottery; Harriet F. (Rae) Beaubien (Head of Conservation/Conservator) with expertise in the technical study and conservation of inorganic and organic archaeological objects with an emphasis on on-site conservation; Nicole Little (Physical Scientist/Archaeologist) with expertise in chemical and mineralogical studies of inorganic archaeological materials; and Christine France (Physical Scientist/Isotope Geochemist) with expertise in stable isotope characterization of organic and inorganic materials, diagenetic alteration of archaeological and paleontological specimens;, late Pleistocene/early Holocene archaeology and paleontology. Melvin Wachowiak (Senior Conservator) provides expertise in a variety of imaging techniques including light microcopies, 3D scanning, extended focal imaging, replication of objects, and advanced object documentation.

  • Recent symposia. Jeff Speakman (MCI), Javier Iñañez (MCI) and Christopher Wolff (NMNH & MCI) organized two sessions at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis held April 14–18, 2010. The sessions titled Archaeological Science 2010: Part I & II included 32 presentations by archeological scientists from across the United States. MCI research was prominently represented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, held at the University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010, where 9 papers and posters were presented based on research undertaken at MCI.
  • Panamanian excavation featured in National Geographic. Rae Beaubien (MCI) is working with a STRI archaeological team in the excavation of a Pre-Columbian mortuary site, El Caño, a project that will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic. The excavation has recovered numerous gold and related metal artifacts. This supports a broad study of goldworking in Pre-Columbian Panama conducted by Rae and two fellows in collaboration with archaeological colleagues at STRI. Detailed information on composition and fabrication is being compiled on gold artifacts in the collections of NMAI, NMNH, and the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz, the national museum located in Panama City, as well as recently excavated finds from several sites in Panama, such as El Caño, curated at STRI. This dataset will be used to test hypotheses about the origins and development of goldworking technology in the Americas.
  • Dating volcanic eruptions with tree rings. MCI researchers Christine France and Jeff Speakman, in collaboration with the University of Arizona, are looking for isotopic signatures for volcanic eruptions in tree rings.  The annual growth rings obtained from well dated Pinus michoacana tree ring cores from Parícutin, Mexico show chemical signatures that correlate with a known local volcanic eruption (1943-1952) and its subsequent atmospheric and terrestrial inputs. This novel analytical approach can potentially be used to date unknown eruptions which in the past have often relied on the common dendrochronological technique of tree ring width determination, or on historic human records. Results of this study were reported at several recent national and international meetings.
  • Obsidian tools trace the peopling of the Americas. Jeff Speakman (MCI) and Nicole Little’s (MCI) ongoing research, conducted at MCI in partnership with Dennis Stanford (NMNH), the National Park Service, University of Alaska Museum of the North, University of Washington, University of Missouri, and many Russian colleagues, is using unique trace elements in obsidian archaeological artifacts, such as arrow points, to find their volcanic source. The study has focused on archaeological sites and volcanoes in three geographic regions—the Kurile Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula, and Alaska, and show that some artifacts from archaeological sites in Alaska originate from volcanic sources in northeast Russia. The primary objectives of this research include: (1) to study prehistoric inter- and intra-regional patterns of mobility, trade, exchange, resource exploitation, and cultural interaction; (2) to facilitate a better understanding of the prehistory of Eastern and Western Beringia; and (3) to foster collaborations between U.S. and Russian colleagues that will facilitate the exchange of ideas and research findings. To date chemical data have been generated thus far for more than 10,000 obsidian artifacts and geological source samples and have resulted in 1 NSF grant submission, 4 peer reviewed publications, and about 10 professional presentations in the past year.
  • Artifacts of American colonial history. MCI researchers are collaborating with archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Team and Doug Owsley (NMNH), on a number of projects related to ongoing excavations at America’s first permanent English settlement in the New World. MCI projects include the high resolution imaging of a Jamestown slate object that is covered with words, numbers, and etchings of people, plants, and birds that its owner likely encountered in the New World in the early 1600s. Additional research is underway to determine the geologic origin of the slate which is presumed to have been quarried in England. MCI also is collaborating on a project to determine the origin of Spanish majolica pottery recovered from recent excavations at the site. Finally MCI has recently completed the chemical analyses of human bone from ca. 60 individuals to better understand the health and status of these early settlers.


 

2010 Archaeological Science Presentations by MCI Staff and Fellows

Beaubien, Harriet F. (2010). Burial Offerings made of Perishable Materials at Waka', Guatemala. Paper Presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis. April 14–18, 2010.

Beaubien, Harriet F. (2010). Organic Materials: Condition Issues, Field Recovery Techniques, Conservation in the Field Lab. Presentations and workshop as part of Short Course in Archaeological Field Conservation, New York University Institute of Fine Arts’ Conservation Center. May 17–21, 2010.

Ferrer, Samanth G., Jaume Buxeda i Garrigós, Javier G. Iñañez, Fernando Amores Carredano, Julia Beltran de Heredia Bercero (2010). Transport Jars for a Global World: First Steps toward their Archaeological and Archaeometric Understanding in the Early Modern Period. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Florey, Victoria, Nicole C. Little, Chris Houlette, Jeffrey T. Rasic, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). The Application of Micro-XRF and Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry Technology on the Analysis of Alaska Obsidian. Paper presented at 2010 Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Anchorage, Alaska, March 24–27, 2010.

Houlette, Chris, Jeff Rasic, Victoria Florey, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Prehistoric Obsidian Procurement and Transport in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Paper presented at 2010 Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Anchorage, Alaska, March 24–27, 2010.

Iñañez, Javier, Carol A. Grissom, S. Colby Phillips, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Recent, International Advances in the use of PXRF and other Portable Field Technologies for Archaeochemical Studies of Historic Sites. Paper presented at the Society for Historic Archaeology 2010 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology Amelia Island Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida. January 6–9, 2010.

Iñañez, Javier, Bonnie G. McEwan, Jerry W. Lee, Nicole C. Little, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Archaeometrical Characterization of Colonial Pottery from Mission San Luis, Florida. Paper presented at the Society for Historic Archaeology 2010 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology Amelia Island Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida. January 6–9, 2010.

Iñañez, Javier G., Robert J. Speakman, and Jaume Buxeda i Garrigós (2010). Technological Features of Majolica Pottery: Differentiation and Implications for Archaeometrical Studies. Paper Presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis. April 14–18, 2010.

Iñañez, Javier G., Gifford J. Waters, Kathleen Deagan, Michael D. Glascock, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Archaeometrical characterization of majolica ceramics from St. Augustine (Florida). Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Iñañez, Javier G., Marisol Madrid i Fernandez, Judit Molera, Trinitat Pradell, Jaume Buxeda i Garrigos, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Potters and Pigments: Preliminary Technological Assessment of Pigment Recipes of American Majolica. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Iñañez, Javier G., Jaume Buxeda i Garrigos, Marisol Madrid i Fernandez, Judit Molera, Trinitat Pradell, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Romita Ware: Technological Characterization of a Hybrid Colonial Ceramic. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Kingery, Anne, Rachel Popelka-Filcoff, David Lopez, Fabien potter, Patrick Hill, and Michael Glascock (2010). Conservation and neutron activation analysis: A case-study of natural pigments of the northern Great Plains. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Little, Nicole C. Irma Molina, Douglas W. Owsley, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Quantification of Heavy Metals in Bone using Portable. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Rasic, Jeffrey T. Greg Hare, Christopher Houlette, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). Preferential Use of Exotic Obsidian in the Southern Yukon Territory. Paper presented at 2010 Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Anchorage, Alaska, March 24–27, 2010.

Speakman, Robert J., S. Colby Phillips, Victoria Florey, Nicole C. Little, and Javier G. Iñañez. Approaches to Micro-XRF of Analysis Obsidian. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Speakman, Robert J. Christine A.M. France, Paul R. Sheppard, Nadia Jimenez Cano, and Nicole C. Little (2010). Dating Volcanic Eruption in Prehistory: Chemical and Isotopic Approaches. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.

Speakman, Robert J. Christine A.M. France, Paul R. Sheppard, Nadia Jimenez Cano, and Nicole C. Little (2010). Stable Isotopic and Chemical Indicators of Volcanic Eruptions in Tree Rings from Paricutin, Mexico—Implications for Dating Prehistoric Eruptions. Paper Presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis. April 14–18, 2010.

Wolff, Christopher, William Fitzhugh, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). The Utility of pXRF in the Assessment of Slate Procurement and Exchange by the Maritime Archaic of Newfoundland and Labrador. Paper Presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis. April 14–18, 2010.

Wolff, Christopher, William Fitzhugh, and Robert J. Speakman (2010). The Utility of pXRF in the Assessment of Slate Procurement and Exchange by the Maritime Archaic of Newfoundland and Labrador. Paper Presented at the 38th International Symposium on Archaeometry, University of South Florida, Tampa, May 10–14, 2010.