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Jamestown on a Chemical Level

September 15, 2011

The mobile device can monitor mercury levels in soil, prospect for minerals, and help scrapyards find the valuable junk. Last week it also gave a sense of the chemical makeup of some of Historic Jamestown's most important artifacts.

Dr. Marcos Martinon-Torres used the portable X-ray florescence spectrometer to confirm that a child's whistle teething stick is good silver -- 94 percent silver, just a bit below the silver content of a coin of the era. Jamestown Rediscovery staff had wondered about the copper content of the stick since finding it so corroded in 2009.

Dr. Marcos Martinon-Torres using the portable X-ray florescence spectrometer inside the Archaearium.
Dr. Marcos Martinon-Torres using the portable X-ray florescence spectrometer inside the Archaearium.
He also gave the staff a quick look at the chemical makeup of some American Indian pottery pieces. The initial readings from the machine that costs more than $35,000 seemed to confirm some staff analysis done over the years with the natural eye (such as: Potomac Creek pottery has different material in it than pottery made in the James River basin).

Bly Straube, senior archaeological curator for the Jamestown Rediscovery project, said this kind of spectrometer -- a technological advance of the past 10 years -- is a great help because it looks at chemical composition without requiring an artifact be broken apart.

The spectrometer is also an example of how archaeologists and scientists are working more closely together than they did two decades ago. Martinon-Torres was trained as an archaeologist and said he has been using this kind of spectrometer for about five years.

"I hope my work will encourage others to do more of this kind of work here and at other sites," he said. "There's a lot more to be done."

Martinon-Torres is a senior lecturer in archaeological science and material culture at University College London. He came to Jamestown to spend a week getting readings for his upcoming book about European metalworking laboratories at the dawn of modern science. Historic Jamestown has artifacts from the early James Fort labs that Martinon-Torres can compare to labs in Europe at the same time.

"This is the most important site in America to do this kind of study," he said. "It's interesting because you know the context of the objects so well. It's also very exciting to see their ingenuity in testing all the materials they were finding."

The 17 years of the Jamestown Rediscovery project has found plenty of evidence that settlers came prepared to do industry at Jamestown. For example, the English settlers used high-quality Hessian crucibles in their lab, and Martinon-Torres tested the composition of those.

"You can see they had high expectations of what they would find and do here because they brought very good instruments," he said.

The varied English efforts at Jamestown give him a lot of data to compare with European labs. Martinon-Torres also examined molds, distilling equipment, and glass found at Jamestown.

"It's rather exceptional to see the wealth of the instruments here. This is among the best-preserved early modern laboratories," Martinon-Torres said. "I've been really impressed by this project's scale and how thoroughly these artifacts are used to tell the story here."

He has looked at metalworking equipment from the Dominican Republic, and he went from Jamestown to Quebec to look at artifacts from the early days of that French settlement.

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

Preservation Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation formed a new collaboration in the fall of 2010 to connect their histories through compelling stories of discovery, diversity and democracy.

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