Lights, Romans, action: Students zap ancient artifacts at CLS

By in News

Once university students declare a major, opportunities to study outside their discipline become limited, but students at the University of Saskatchewan are bridging the gap between departments, and using the Canadian Light Source to study ancient artifacts to do it.

The joint Chemistry and Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies 398 course brings together students from both disciplines to examine ancient artifacts. The course includes three groups of students, each studying a different artifact: Roman coins, ancient pottery and Egyptian faience. Many of the artifacts come from the Museum of Antiquities located on campus, but some were lent to the university specifically for study.

Melissa Shaw, a fifth-year chemistry major, explains the X-ray fluorescence technique that the students use to analyze the artifacts.

“XRF works by exciting the electrons in a metal, so they will eject an electron, and that electron gives off a certain signal and we can measure that with a detector,” unnamedShaw said. “Different elements give off different signature detection limits, so you can tell the difference between silver, gold and lead.”

Tracene Harvey, the Museum of Antiquities director and curator, stated that if any students are interested in working with artifacts and would like to take the class in the future, they could express their interest by contacting her at the museum.

Shaw shared that one of the highlights was the hands-on experience the groups have received.

“David Muir, the [scientist] that works at the IDEAS beamline … just sat back and just let us run the whole show but was there if we had any questions,” Shaw said.

Ben Kmiech, a third-year CMRS student, explained the scope of his group’s study, which focuses on Roman coins, mostly from the period when Rome transitioned from a republic to an empire.

“In the ancient world, coins were literally worth their weight in gold, but in the later Roman empire we start to see them debasing the coins and that’s basically like watering down a drink. You’re pouring in a bunch of non-precious metal so you sort of get more bang for your buck,” Kmiech said. “Using X-ray fluorescence, we can see just how debased a specific coin is and we can sort of see … which emperors are the worst for debasement and which one’s are the best — as in not doing it.”

Kmiech explains that the trends in their findings show that coins were most often debased during times of political instability, but debasement levels tended to recover as political stability returned.

Kathryn Bloski, a fifth-year CMRS student, highlighted a couple examples the group has found so far to explain some of their findings.

“Mark Antony [lived] in a time that so much war was going on that he needed to pay his soldiers, so we’re assuming he would debase [coins] just because he was running out of metal,” Bloski said. “Nero … could have had different reasons for debasing his coinage … He wanted to rebuild Rome and make it better than it was before, so he debased [the coinage] a lot just so he could have more expenses.”

Bloski also shares the group’s interest in how the Roman mining processes and metallurgy affected the elemental composition.

“We know that they heated up the metal and struck it to make it into the coin it is, so we’re seeing if that actually affected the elemental composition of it, and then if where they mined it from had different elements, in that we can detect if certain silver in one coin belongs to a different mine in Spain or Greece,” Bloski said.

Harvey emphasizes the value she sees in the course.

“What’s so great about the course is the interdisciplinary aspect … We wanted to give the students here at the U of S the opportunity to do these kinds of things for themselves, bringing together the chemistry and the humanities students, and so far it’s been a great experience both for the students and for us.”

Jonah Egan-Pimblett

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor