Proteomics identifies the flora and fauna in archaeological and ethnographic objects

The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) is developing proteomics capabilities as a part of the Institution’s central research infrastructure – the Mass Spectrometry Center. Proteomics, the large-scale study of protein structure and function, allows us to gather more information from Smithsonian collections, cultural objects and biological specimens, and to learn more about their materials, their origins, and their deterioration. Already, MCI fellow Caroline Solazzo has conducted pioneering proteomics research to identify traces of Beluga whale blubber on St. Lawrence Island potsherds, sheep’s wool and cow leather objects found with a bronze disk from an 1,800 year old Mongolian burial, and wooly dog’s hair woven into blankets from the Coastal Salish Tribes of the Pacific Northwest collected by the Wilkes expedition (1838-1842). This work, conducted on Smithsonian collections at proteomics facilities in France and England, has produced a number of well-regarded, ground-breaking archaeological publications. Proteomics techniques are one way to move beyond identification of organisms to look at the activity and dynamics of their populations, their use in cultural and artistic expression, and their role in sustainable ecosystems.