Unlocking the secrets of ancient Eygpt

Unlocking the secrets of ancient Eygpt

17 May 2010

What happens when you combine expertise from the discipline of archaeology with the latest techniques of synchrotron science?

Egypt pyramids Researchers at La Trobe University are hoping it will gain them access to rare artefacts in Berlin from one of the great periods of history – that of Pharaoh Akhenaten – to help them shed new light on ancient Egypt and Bronze Age trade and industry.

Mark Eccleston, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Archaeology, will talk about this pioneering project at the Melbourne Museum next Wednesday, 19 May, at 6pm. The lecture is part of National Archaeology Week.

Dr Eccleston’s work has been carried out with La Trobe physicist Dr Peter Kappen and Dermot Henry, a mineralogist from Museum Victoria. Its outcome could clarify controversy about the production methods of the jewellery and ceramics industry in Egypt between 1100 and 1500 BC.

Using the Australian and Hamburg synchrotrons, the researchers have just completed a pilot project to study samples of Egyptian faience glazed beads.  (Egyptian faience is a fine-glazed quartz ceramic of distinct turquoise colour.)

Dr Eccleston’s work on ancient Egyptian industries involves fieldwork and experimental replication of bronze and glazed faience production at Tell el-Amarna, the capital city of Akhenaten.

His work examines the furnaces and kilns used to make decorative and household objects, the raw materials they were made from, and from where those materials were sourced.

‘Our results suggest that the blue glaze on the beads is made from a combination of copper minerals that are the same as those that exist in copper mines in Jordan.  

‘This has greatly increased our understanding of the industry, its links to state-controlled copper mines and, for the first time, allows us to suggest with more certainty how these objects were actually manufactured.’

He says the aim of their pilot was ‘to demonstrate the success of the technique so we can get permission from the Berlin museum to borrow material from Amarna, excavated by German archaeologists about a hundred years ago’.

 ‘We hope to start that work in August to see if we can come up with the same results.’

The objects to be studied range from jewellery, amulets and bowls to funerary figurines used by both nobles and general society.  While the more prestigious objects were probably made in factories, he says others were found in the courtyard of a house.

‘This,’ says Dr Eccleston, ‘raises interesting, and controversial, questions as to who was making it. Was it women or men?

‘The argument goes that household industry was normally undertaken by women – but this is not the type of material that women usually made, so it has thrown a bit of spanner in the works.

‘I think women were probably involved in industries such as faience and metals, and they were doing the work in households, but some people disagree with me.’

He says the synchrotron can reveal levels of detail never before possible about the atomic structure of raw materials used to make ancient glazes and the minerals used to colour them.

‘By being able to tell where these materials were mined, we’ll be able to answer other questions about the economy of trade in bronze and metals, how industries were set up and how materials were distributed throughout society for different purposes.

‘It’s exciting to pioneer a new era of scientific collaboration where physics and archaeology are able to combine in this way to answer questions that we have not been able to tackle before.’

Contact: Dr Mark Eccleston Tel: (03) 9479 2978; Email: m.eccleston@latrobe.edu.au

More details about the lecture:

NOTE: Dr Kappen’s synchrotron expertise has previously helped the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and CSIRO with analysing paint pigments from a 2,700 year-old Egyptian coffin lid held by the NGV.

La Trobe University, with a group of universities and the State Government of South Australia, is a Foundation Investor in the Australian Synchrotron.  La Trobe uses the synchrotron for research projects and also runs synchrotron courses for its science and technology students.




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