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Ancient skeletons give up their secrets thanks to neutron scattering

Neutrons have revealed unique details of funeral, burial and cooking practices of past civilisations, thanks to a study of ancient skeletal remains carried out at the UK’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS) research facility.

A team of archaeologists led by Dr Giulia Festa from Centro Fermi worked with scientists from ISIS to successfully develop a way of analysing burned bones, despite the challenges usually presented by such samples.

When bones are heated they shrivel and shrink, leaving just the inorganic material behind. This makes determining the age, sex and size of the human they belonged to much more difficult. The inorganic material retains hydrogen – in the form of hydroxyapatite – which can be detected successfully by neutrons. Bones from a number of Italian archaeological sites, ranging in age from 600 to 5,000 years old, were examined using neutron scattering techniques.

ISIS’s Stewart Parker said: “ISIS is the only facility in Europe where this kind of study could be carried out. Neutrons give a unique insight into the bones’ history, revealing key details about everyday life in ancient civilisations as well as information about the environment in which they were found.”

The most revealing finding was that burned remains from an ancient Roman necropolis (100-200 AD) showed evidence of burning at different temperatures as a result of being burned in direct contact with the soil of the grave, without a covering. This gave archaeologists the first clues on what ritual burning procedures were at the time and the setting in which remains were burned.

The study revealed the burning temperature for Copper Age bones from around 3350-2910 BCE, indicating that they were burned in funerary rites in a large structure inside a Tuscan cave.

The analysis also showed that bones from the Middle Ages (500-1400 AD) from an archaeological site near Rome were burned at temperatures that did not indicate a funerary practice.

Meanwhile an animal bone from the Neolithic era showed signs of being burned in a domestic fire as part of the cooking process, the researchers concluded.

The researchers used infrared (IR) spectroscopy techniques as well as neutron scattering in order to build up a picture of what had happened to these ancient bones. The results were compared with data from modern human bones burned under controlled conditions to identify what happened to them at specific temperatures. The researchers found that biomarkers in modern bones can be used for the study of ancient bones, in which these biomarkersare preserved over time.

The plan for the future is to build a database using this new information to allow future studies to link features in burned human remains to specific temperatures and environments, creating a new scientific procedure for archaeologists.

The University of Coimbra’s Professor Maria Paula Marques was a member of the research team. She said: “This innovative approach to the study of archaeological burned human bones will now be developed so that we understand more about the geographical, historical and anthropological context in which we find human remains. Future research will look at more samples from a range of sites.”

The Inelastic Neutron Scattering (INS) measurements of these bones used the MAPS and TOSCA instruments at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, England.

The study was published in Science Advances on June 28, 2019.


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