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The Gestation of Archaeometry

Talk given by Martin Aitken, May 29 2012

On this 50th Anniversary of Archaeometry Symposia I thought it would be appropriate to say a few words about the gestation of the Archaeometry concept. The  word itself was coined by Christopher Hawkes when he was Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford. This was back in 1958 and it arose in the course of discussion I was having with him; this was about a suitable name for the modest cyclo-styled newsletter we were starting about work in progress at the quite newly formed Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at 6 Keble Road, Oxford. But the  concept of having a lab dedicated to applying scientific techniques, specifically physics, to archaeology and art history rather than a lab attached to a museum, goes back much further, to 1950. It was the proposition of the then Professor of Physics, Lord Cherwell, whom you see on the left. He proposed the idea to Christopher Hawkes, whom you see on the right, one night at dinner at an Oxford college (Christchurch in fact) (1). 

These two then got together and persuaded the University to establish, in 1955, the Keble Road lab. The first Director was Edward (Teddy) Hall, seen below some years before his death; he had already been using XRF as a research student in Cherwell's lab (the Clarendon); this was in detecting the presence of chromium in cranial fragments of the so-called Piltdown Man, thereby adding weight of evidence to the supposition that it was a forgery. 

The next important use of XRF was in the first years of the Keble Road lab by Stuart Young, shown below in retirement, in establishing the Mn/Co ratio in the blue of Chinese Blue & White porcelain and how it changed century by century depending on region of origin (3).

I myself joined the Keble Road lab in 1957 and continued a project that had been started by Stuart in cooperation with Peter Swann, then Keeper of the Department of Eastern Art. This was concerned with the direction of the remanent magnetisation acquired by Chinese Yuëh ware on cooling down from firing. Early in the following year Teddy and I developed a transistorised version of the proton magnetometer; this embodied the phenomenon of proton free precession and enabled the detection at ground level of the very weak magnetic disturbance due to types of archaeological remains such as kilns, pits, walls and ditches. That same year I used it with success in England (4) and also on the Bronze Age site of Enkommi in Cyprus; there, using local talent as shown below, we plotted out the ancient road system but failed to detect any tombs.

There were so many requests for surveys in England that the the lab could not satisfy the demand; to meet this the technically simpler proton gradiometer, or Maxbleep, was developed, affordable by local archaeological groups. Annual training courses were organised and the final photograph shows the 1961 students, inclusive of archaeologist Richard Atkinson an exponent of resistivity surveying. These courses were the core of annual Archaeometry Symposia for several years and it is very gratifying to me to see them thriving to-day, with about ten times the number of participants and of course embracing more subjects than physics. I would like to congratulate all the successive organisers and above all thank our present host and his team.


I would like to thank Stuart Young for his vital help in sharing his recollections of the early days, and Chris Stringer and Robert Kruszynski of the Natural History Museum of London, for information about the Piltdown investigation.


(1) Hawkes, C.F.C., 1986, The Research Laboratory: its beginning. Archaeometry28 (2), 131-132.

(2) Hall E.T. 1953, Analysis of Archaeological specimens: a new method. Times Sience Review, London, 9: 13.  

(3) Young S.A. 1956, An Analysis of Chinese Blue-and-White. Oriental Art  11 no.2.

(4) Aitken M.J. 1986, Proton Magnetometer Prospection: Reminiscences of the First Year. Prospezioni Archeolgiche 10, 15-17.

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