Plaster from human dwellings or the signs of a long-abandoned animal enclosure? Tuesday’s New York Times describes the collaboration between a chemist – structural biologist Prof. Steve Weiner, who is head of the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute – and American archaeologists. From China to the nearby site of biblical Gath, Weiner and his team have been applying the methods of advanced chemistry to solving riddles of the ancient world. (The answer, at least for the dig at Ashkelon, is fecal and decayed plant matter, meaning the apparent palace was really a stable.)
But even as that article appeared, hi-tech archaeology at the Institute was getting kicked up a fairly large notch. On Wednesday, the presidents of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science and the Weizmann Institute, Profs. Peter Gruss and Daniel Zajfman, signed an agreement to open a new center for collaborative archaeology research. The research will be carried out at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Among the technological wonders that will be used to reveal the microscopic finer points of relics from pottery to teeth will be a big-ticket piece of equipment that is being constructed especially for the purpose and is slated to be installed in a physics facility sometime this year. This accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) can be used for radiocarbon dating with an accuracy of a few tens of years; and it can pick out one carbon atom in a quadrillion (ten to the 15th). According to Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, the Kimmel Center’s radiocarbon dating expert, it will be able to accurately date a single lentil or grain of wheat.
Other research will make use of Weiner’s experience in investigating modern materials – specifically teeth. His studies of the microstructure of modern human teeth have revealed how they stand up to the daily pressures of chewing. Now, similar analyses will be used to examine the evolution of teeth in our nearest ancestors.