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Archaeometry (from ancient Greek ἀρχή / arché = beginning and μέτρον / métron = measure) is the generic term for all scientific methods that are used to clarify archaeological and, in some cases, historical questions. The methods today come from the disciplines of chemistry , physics (with the sub-disciplines of atomic , nuclear and geophysics ), mineralogy , materials science , and, in recent decades, increasingly from the biosciences, especially from molecular biology .

Archaeometric methods can be classified according to the type of question (age, origin, history of the find, environmental conditions, etc.) or according to the material of the artifacts examined (rock, metal, organic material).

In Germany there is currently (as of June 2019) only one chair for archaeometry at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen . Archaeometry is therefore considered a minor subject in German university policy .

In English-speaking countries, archaeometry is referred to as archaeometry , archaeological science or scientific archeology .

Inorganic branch

In the area of ​​finds with an inorganic composition, it is investigated in which geographical regions and at which times materials (e.g. flint , copper , bronze , gold , silver , iron , mortar , ceramics, etc.) were extracted and processed and how the production is - and processing techniques have developed.


One of the current research goals of this branch of archaeometry is to determine the place and time of the beginning of metal processing by humans. Solid metal (gold, copper) has been used for 10,000 years. It is unclear when ores were smelted for the first time. The oldest ore slags found so far at Arisman and Tappe Sialk have been dated to the 4th millennium BC.

The examination of metal objects is carried out by mass spectrometry and identifies the isotope ratio of the metals that is specific for each mining site . For example, a Magnetic Sector ICP-MS VG-Axiom mass spectrometer is used at the Curt Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry (CEZA) of the Reiss Engelhorn Museums . The head of the CEZA is Professor Ernst Pernicka from Tübingen , who became known to a wider audience through his study of the Nebra Sky Disc .

Investigation of ancient pottery

A large amount of information about the life cycle of ceramics can be gleaned from shards that are recovered during archaeological excavations using chemical and physical methods : from the origin of the clay , to manufacturing technology and traces from the time of use to changes during storage in the Soil and after discovery.

The composition of the ceramic is microscopically deciphered with a petrographic analysis. For this purpose, thin sections of the shards are examined in transmitted light and polarized light . The pictures provide information about the type of thinning from a qualitative and quantitative point of view. The petrographic examination is particularly suitable for heavy ceramics with a larger proportion of non-plastic components.

Chemical analysis is preferred for fine ceramics . Main elements (> 2%), minor elements (2-0.01%) and trace elements (<0.01%) can be determined with small sample quantities and sensitive analysis methods such as X-ray fluorescence analysis or AAS (atomic absorption) . The ratio of silicates to calcium / magnesium oxides is important for locating the origin of the clay.

If both methods are used in parallel, the results complement each other. This allows statements to be made about the origin of ceramics and evidence of trade connections.

Organic branch

A large part of the organic materials in excavations consists of bones from municipal waste, burial grounds or traces of biological origin on objects, whereby contamination often occurs due to the long and sometimes unknown storage . With the help of osteology , conclusions can be drawn about animal nutrition or diseases. Archaeozoologists also determine ancient animal species from snail shells, egg or mussel shells, archaeobotanists use plant remains to reconstruct changes in the history of the vegetation, or land use and nutrition. Anthropologists may use forensic anthropology methods . Organic finds can also be examined with various methods of biochemistry such as the polymerase chain reaction and trace element or isotope analysis.


Since the development of the polymerase chain reaction, the investigation of old DNA has offered the possibility of determining relationships within burial grounds. What is essential here is the state of preservation of the bones and teeth, from which intact DNA fragments can be extracted, especially when stored in a neutral environment and at low temperatures.

Other biomolecules

Further, a mortality and deck age determination by analysis of protein - racemates , a blood groups -Investigating by antibody reactions and a hormonal carried sex determination.

Isotope analysis

Strontium analysis, for example, is used to examine whether dead people have been found in their original homeland. The body builds traces of strontium instead of calcium into the calcium carbonate of both tooth enamel and that of the bones . The isotope ratios of the natural strontium deposits differ characteristically from area to area. Since tooth enamel is not remodeled, the isotope ratio of the traces of strontium found in the tooth enamel shows the isotope ratio of the area of ​​origin in which a person grew up (at the time the enamel was formed). If a different isotope ratio is found in the strontium of the bones, then the person has immigrated to the area in which his corpse was found.

The origin of the archer from Amesbury, buried near Stonehenge, in the northern Alpine foothills could be found by comparing the oxygen isotope distributions in the tooth enamel.

Scientific dating methods

Classical dating methods in archeology such as stratigraphy and comparative ceramic research enable relative dating. Scientific methods such as radiocarbon dating , dendrochronology and thermoluminescence dating are suitable for determining absolute numerical times .

Prospecting methods

To explore archaeological sites, site inspections are usually carried out, during which surface finds such as ceramic shards are recorded. Aerial archeology enables a large-scale overview of structural structures , whereby underground architectural remains can also be found via soil features.

Geophysical methods such as soil resistance measurement , geomagnetics , ground penetrating radar , electromagnetic induction ( metal detector ) and reflection seismics offer further insights into underground archaeological structures depending on the nature of the soil.


Review works

  • Bernd Herrmann (Ed.), Archaeometry. Scientific analysis of remains. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York (1994). (meanwhile partly out of date, nevertheless short and good introduction)
  • Andreas Hauptmann, Volker Pingel (Ed.): Archaeometry. Methods and application examples. Schweizerbart, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-510-65232-7 (Presentation of specific techniques of archaeometry based on the solution of archaeological and historical problems.)
  • DR Brothwell & AM Pollard (Eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. (2001; Paperback Edition: 2005) (much more extensive than Herrmann, more recent)
  • Manfred Reitz : On the trail of time. Decipher past puzzles using scientific methods . Wiley-VCH publishing house, 2003
  • Rolf CA Rottländer: Introduction to the scientific methods in archeology . Tübingen 1983
  • GA Wagner: Introduction to Archaeometry , Springer, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-540-71936-6 .

Specialist articles on special methods

  • Ina Reiche, Martin Radtke, Christian Brouder: X-ray analysis in art: antique glasses and petrified ivory . Physics in our time 34 (2), pp. 80-86 (2003), ISSN  0031-9252
  • Günther A. Wagner, Steffen Greilich, Anette Kadereit: Luminescence dating: cold glow illuminates the past. Physics in our time 34 (4), pp. 160-166 (2003), ISSN  0031-9252

The main magazines

  • Archaeometry (quarterly, online version )
  • Journal of Archaeological Science (monthly, online version )
  • Archaeometric news sheet , published by the Society for Natural Scientific Archeology / Archaeometry * * Radiocarbon
  • Restoration and archeology. Conservation, restoration, technology, archaeometry . Multilingual periodical, appears annually, Volume 1 appeared in 2008, Verlag des Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseums - Research Institute for Prehistory and Early History, Mainz.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Archaeometry  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Small Subjects: Archaeometry on the Small Subjects portal. Retrieved June 12, 2019 .
  2. Marino Magetti: Scientific investigation of ancient ceramics . In: Andreas Hauptmann (Ed.): Archaeometry. Methods and application examples . Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-510-65232-7 , pp. 91-109.
  3. Susanne Hummel: Old DNA . In: Andreas Hauptmann (Ed.): Archaeometry. Methods and application examples . Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-510-65232-7 , pp. 67-88.
  4. Dieter Vieweger : Archeology of the biblical world . 2nd Edition. Göttingen 2006, ISBN 978-3-8252-2394-6 , pp. 130-145.