Cultural Heritage

Cultural Heritage is a rapidly expanding area of research at synchrotrons. Scientists are using synchrotrons' non-destructive techniques to find answers to big questions in palaeontology, archaeology, art history and forensics. Synchrotrons provide a platform for research into conservation of buildings, paintings and artefacts. Ultimately this work will advance our understanding of the past, to ensure our cultural heritage is better preserved for future generations.

Do You Speak Neanderthal?

Homo neanderthalensis: reconstruction
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Homo neanderthalensis: reconstruction

Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste, Italy

Could Neanderthals talk? The latest X-ray analysis conducted at the Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste research center (Italy) on the hyoid bone of a Neanderthal Man found in 1989 on the archaeological site of Kebara (Israel), strongly supports this hypothesis. The study made a comparison between the biomechanical properties of the Kebara hyoid and those of the same bone in Homo sapiens.

Scholars dealing with the question of complex language and its evolution, already had focused their attention on the hyoid bone. This is the only bone of the vocal tract and therefore the only part that can fossilize. The hyoid provides support to the larynx and serves as anchor for the tongue and other muscles needed - at least in Homo sapiens - in phonation. It is already known, from the study of external morphology, that the hyoid bones of Homo neanderthalensis and modern man don't differ significantly, as they have a different shape from that of other primates such as chimpanzees.

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Mysterious Rembrandt: X-ray analysis of detailed mock-up shows how to reveal hidden paintings

Mock-up of Rembrandt´s “An old man in military costume” with a portrait painted underneath the final work.
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Mock-up of Rembrandt´s “An old man in military costume” with a portrait painted underneath the final work.

DORIS, DESY, Hamburg, Germany, and the National Synchrotron Light Source, Brookhaven National Laboratory, USA

A sophisticated X-ray technology paves the way to uncover the secrets of a 380 years old Rembrandt masterpiece. Underneath the “Old Man in Military Costume” painted by the Dutch artist in the years 1630/31, earlier investigations spotted another portrait which was only faintly distinguishable with all applied technologies. For years, art historians puzzled over the question of who is depicted on the repainted picture. An international team of scientists used a detailed mock-up to test different methods to look beneath the original painting.

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4,000 Year Old Starry Night Sky

Nebra Sky Disk
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Nebra Sky Disk

Art and Cultural Sciences at BESSY II, Germany

Historical artefacts can be studied extremely gently and completely non-destructively using synchrotron light. Accordingly, art historians and archaeologists are frequent visitors to Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), where they check paintings from famous artists for authenticity. Historians also bring in valuable scriptures by Archimedes or the Qumran Scrolls, which are some of the oldest known documents of the Bible. Others bring parts of sunken ships or cult objects such as the Nebra Sky Disk or the Berlin Gold Hat, an artefact from the Bronze Age that was most probably a calendar. To ensure that these often unique and highly valuable objects are not damaged, let alone stolen, HZB has air-conditioned examination rooms and secure vaults for storing them. 

The most frequently asked questions concern creation, origin and authenticity as well as preservation. Using synchrotron light, pjysicists can analyse the chemical composition of paintings or art objects in precise detail. For instance, the light from BESSY II was used to study the Nebra Sky Disk: The entirely non-destructive analysis of the circa 4000-year-old cultural object revealed important findings. The oldest known depiction of the starry night sky was apparently created in multiple phases, with materials originating from various parts of Europe. This is evidence of travel that had always been thought impossible for those times.

Learning from Roman Seawater Concrete

Drill core of mortar consisting of volcanic ash and hydrated lime, showing yellowish particles of pumice, dark gray fragments of lava, and white particles of relict lime.
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Drill core of mortar consisting of volcanic ash and hydrated lime, showing yellowish particles of pumice, dark gray fragments of lava, and white particles of relict lime.
The light gray is the cementitious matrix that binds the concrete. Inset is a scanning electron microscope image of the special Al-tobermorite crystals that are key to the superior quality of Roman seawater concrete.

The Advanced Light Source, Berkley Lab, USA

The material secrets of a concrete Roman breakwater that has spent the last 2000 years submerged in the Mediterranean Sea have been uncovered by an international team of researchers using a variety of techniques, including X-ray microdiffraction, X-ray spectroscopy, and synchrotron-based high-pressure X-ray diffraction. Analyses of the ancient samples pinpointed why the best Roman concrete was superior to most modern concrete in durability, why its manufacture was less environmentally damaging, and how these improvements could be adopted in the modern world.

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