Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Fakers beware: The use of nanoSEM in authenticating artifacts

Several of the blog posts and class discussions over the semester have pointed to the misuse of digital technologies in reprinting or ‘faking’ artifacts or cultural antiquities. Although a majority of the recreations are sold to tourists as knick-knacks and souvenirs, the surge is artifact replication represents a major hindrance on the procurement of authentic artifacts for academic research and museum curation.

Geologist Timothy Rose of the Smithsonian Intuition’s Analytical Laboratories is fighting fire with fire by using his lab’s nanoscale scanning electron microscope (nanoSEM) to determine the authenticity of ancient Mesoamerican artifacts.

In an ongoing study, Rose and his colleagues have analysed hundred of artifacts from ancient Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan and Mezcala civilizations dating from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 600.  

As many of the artifacts under investigation could not be removed from their museums or sectioned to fit into the machine, silicone molds were made of the objects to study tool marks and tiny grains that were removed from deep within the artifacts cracks. This led to the discovered of single-celled algae with cell walls made of silica- a substance that would have been used to create a shiny finish on certain artifacts during the manufacturing process.

Artifacts confiscated by the federal government were analyzed using the nanoSEM to detect if flakes of modern gypsum plaster are present- essentially the objects are being examined for indicative signs that they are fakes. Rose notes that only a small percentage of the artifacts examined showed modern tool marks or evidence of recent origins.

Using this type of technology allows for researchers to examine the artifacts on a microscopic level and provides access to new ways of looking at how and what the artifacts were created with, you can even see micro fractures of tool markers…perhaps using this type of highly detailed technology could be of use when examining micro-fractures in heat-modified rocks (or FCRs as we have all come to know them)! 

1 comment:

Kayley Sherret said...

I find this very interesting because I never really thought about this application for the new imaging technology. I am curious if this equipment, or something similar, could be used in the authentication of other artworks that may be forgeries, such as paintings by famous artists. I wonder what the implications would be for a museum, gallery or collector that was in possession of a faked artifact, beyond embarrassment of course. I am also curious about the cost of doing such an analysis and when it would become a feasible undertaking to test things in larger quantities.