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Portable XRF (pXRF) Applications in Archaeology

Research project conducted by Dr Ellery Frahm, Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

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Portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) is a means to bring traditionally laboratory-based studies into the field, enabling new on-site collaborations. This technology permits one to analyse many more artefacts or samples quickly, non-destructively, and virtually anywhere. With pXRF, selecting artefacts for study can be influenced less by export or shipping restrictions and more by the intellectual framework in which the research is conceived. The speed of pXRF is also advantageous for rescue excavations, where archaeologists cannot wait months for results to inform their work. Ultimately, pXRF enables new or previously cost/time-prohibitive research designs. For example, it offers us a new way to study how past peoples organised space on various scales, from house interiors to entire settlements, as well as the contexts in which they practiced craft production (e.g., lithics, metallurgy). In addition, pXRF allows us to study archaeological materials and features that cannot be moved and require in situ conservation, such as architectural stone and wall mosaics. One focus of my project was using pXRF to do on-site analyses of large obsidian assemblages (i.e., hundreds or thousands of artefacts) in contexts spanning from Palaeolithic Armenia to Mycenaean Greece. A key development from this project was devising methods to rapidly source obsidian artefacts (i.e., analyses and source identifications in 10 seconds) as they are unearthed at archaeological sites or encountered during surveys, enabling new research frameworks and informing excavation strategies and interpretations in the field.


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