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A two millennium journey from Romans to Warrington

Updated Wednesday 20th February 2008

Introducing the new discipline of heritage science

Here’s one for you! What the connection between interior design in Roman Hampshire, The Open University and Warrington?

My name is Paul Hatherly, and I’m in Physics and Astronomy at the OU and along with my teaching in many areas of experimental science, I am building a research programme in the fascinating area of Heritage Science. What is this? Well, there’s no single definition, but for our purposes, it’s applying and developing methods in physical science to questions of art, archaeology and conservation.

For example, you are probably aware of the idea of carbon dating, where scientists count the small number of (naturally) radioactive carbon atoms in an artefact to determine the age. There are also geophysics techniques which, by revealing sub-surface features, can help archaeologists dig in the right place. But there’s more than that. How can we tell what an artefact is made of? How can we tell how it was made in the first place?

A crest from the recovered vessel the Vasa Creative commons image Icon dalbera under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A crest from the ship Vasa

Where did the materials come from? Can we do all this without damaging or destroying the artefact? The questions are endless. But finding out about an artefact doesn’t end the story. Conservation and preservation for future generations to enjoy and study is vital, and Heritage Science has an input here too. Can we be sure that a conservation method successful now won’t, over decades, destroy the artefact or, maybe worse, so affect the artefact that studying it is worthless? Heritage Science is already helping in this area in, for example, helping the long-term conservation of the ships the Mary Rose and the Vasa.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be telling you about some of my work in Heritage Science, and hopefully finding a few answers to the question we started with. In the course of this quest, I’ll be taking you on a journey to some of the most advanced science facilities in the country and meeting the vital people who keep it all running. We will see how a physics technique developed to study nanostructures in semiconductors can be used to try and sort out what Roman painters and decorators were up to in Britain almost 2000 years ago, and perhaps get inside the minds of the artisans and their customers in a way not possible before.

Right now though, I’m approaching the end (or is it the beginning?) of a process started almost a year ago; a process from an original idea, selling that idea in the right quarters, carrying through the idea and ultimately telling the world of our discoveries. I’ll tell you more about this in my next post later this week, and I’ll explain the Warrington connection.

Until then…


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