When cultural heritage scientists go on the road, one of the most useful tools they take with them is something developed for Mars exploration: a hand-held X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Francesca Casadio wrote a snappy little ode to the machine, which NPR awesomely calls a “science gun.”
When researchers point the admittedly weapon-like device at a painting or a sculpture, they are able to find out which elements are present in the artwork. So for example, Casadio has used the machine to discover that about 1000 years ago, Chinese artists used a red, mercury-based paint called vermillion to decorate the lips of a female sculpture.
She also discovered that sometime in the 1800s an over-enthusiastic restorer used a zinc-based paint to give the sculpture “a new coat of lipstick,” Casadio told NPR. Hear the whole NPR piece here.
I heart the space connection. Astrochemists needed rugged and portable equipment to analyze the elemental make-up of the Martian landscape. The X-ray device also doesn’t harm whatever it is analyzing because researchers don’t need to remove a piece of the sample to do the analysis.
Instead, X-rays are directed on to the artwork or Martian rock and they either get scattered or absorbed in a way that reveals which elements are in the sample.
All these characteristics fit the bill for cultural heritage science. These researchers need sturdy, portable, non-invasive devices to study priceless art in caves, at archeological sites or even at a private collector’s home. And that’s why Casadio calls X-ray fluorescence spectrometers “the most exciting high-tech tools you’ve never heard of.”
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