Friday, March 04, 2005

'Atomic Paring Knife' Will Help Probe Ancient Civilizations

Newswise Mississippi State researchers are acquiring a high-tech laser instrument described as an "atomic paring knife" that will be used, among other things, to probe the mysteries of ancient civilizations.

Hailed as the first such unit of its type in the Southeastern United States, the university?s Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer will provide organizations across Mississippi-academic, non-profit and industrial-with unique capabilities for quantitative surface analysis and depth profiling.

It was purchased with a National Science Foundation grant of more than $264,000 awarded to a team of MSU researchers at Diagnostic Instrumentation and Analysis Laboratory-known as DIAL-and Cobb Institute of Archaeology.

"The instrument can be used to map surfaces?find defects or specific surface features," said DIAL director John Plodinec. "One also can do depth profiling-using the laser system as an atomic paring knife, peeling away layer after layer of material."

Associate anthropology professor Evan Peacock predicted the new instrument will greatly enhance MSU?s ongoing archaeological investigations at Lyon's Bluff, an Oktibbeha County site where Native Americans dwelled A.D. 1000-1650. Numerous artifacts and the foundation of a prehistoric fort have been found there, the Cobb research associate added.

"The new laser ablation (precise removal) system provides a rapid, non-destructive way of tracing pottery to its source," Peacock, an environmental archaeologist, said.

Plodinec said the system uses a laser to gently scratch the sample surface, ejecting a small amount of material into plasma, where the atoms are separated by mass.

"The instrument provides a complete, rapid and accurate compositional analysis of almost any materials-stone, glass, ceramics, metals-with no sample preparation and minimal damage to the original sample," said DIAL assistant research professor Adriana Giordana, who is coordinating the technological effort for the lab."