Examining the Philistines Up Close

Archaeometry technology at Tell es-Safi brings atomic-level investigation on site

BAS scholarship winner Zane Stepka prepares a sample for the Fourier Transform IR spectrometer (the grey instrument on the far end of the table) during the 2012 field season at Tell es-Safi. Archaeometry technology allows the team to answer material science questions in the field. Courtesy of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project/Photo: Richard Wiskin

Archaeologists explore the ancient world on various scales to suit their research agendas. Some use satellite images to explore vast landscapes and settlement systems. Field archaeologists use a range of equipment from pickaxes to toothpicks to expose architecture and artifacts. New high-tech archaeometry tools at the Philistine site of Tell es-Safi (the Biblical city Gath) will take in-field analysis to a new level of specificity as team members examine the material culture on an atomic scale.

The Tell es-Safi project, under the direction of Bar-Ilan University’s Aren Maeir, has worked closely with Stephen Weiner and others at the Weizmann Institute’s Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science to develop a sophisticated material science program both on and off the field. The combination of a new handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer with the Tell es-Safi field lab’s Fourier Transform IR spectrometer (FTIR, shown in the photo above) and optical microscopy will provide “the ability to identify the composition of many materials at the atomic level,” according to a post by Maeir on the Tell es-Safi blog. Material science can be used to answer questions about a site’s subsistence and industrial economies and the provenience of material remains. In most cases, archaeologists receive the results of their scientific inquiries between field seasons. By using their non-destructive archaeometry toolkit in the field, the Tell es-Safi team can make quick and informed decisions based on material science analyses during the excavation.

The BAS eBook Cyber Archaeology in the Holy Land discusses the benefits of in-field micoarchaeology:

High precision portable analytical tools are enabling archaeologists to bring the geo-archaeology laboratory to the field. Researchers in Israel have helped lead the way in applying a wide range of techniques to characterize artifacts and archaeological contexts. They have analyzed microscopic environmental data (bones and seeds) to reconstruct subsistence and economic strategies. A special subfield has evolved that is referred to as geo-archaeology or microarchaeology. The “game changer” of characterization studies has been the development of handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and portable Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry (FTIR) units that make it possible to answer questions in “real time” that previously took months or years of laboratory work. We use the Bruker Tracer III-V+ to characterize artifacts and measure the bulk chemical composition of materials. The Nicolet IS5 Spectrometer FTIR is employed to identify mineralogy, sedimentology, diagenesis and ancient pyrotechnology. These analyses can be done at the side of the excavation trench (e.g., Aren Maeir’s excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath) or in a field lab like [at the authors’ excavations at Khirbet] Faynan. These kinds of chemical “fingerprints” become important “metadata” for artifacts that tell us a great deal about ancient human technology, production and trade.

Read more about the Tell es-Safi technology in The Jerusalem Post.

Click here to download your copy of Cyber Archaeology in the Holy Land.

Visit the Tell es-Safi excavation blog.

Visit the BAS archaeological technology page.


Learn more in the BAS Library

Maeir, Aren M. “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at Philistine Origins.Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 2012, 35.

Maeir, Aren M. “Did Captured Ark Afflict Philistines with E.D.?.” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2008, 46-51.

Maeir, Aren M. “Archaeological Views: Is Biblical Archaeology Passé?Biblical Archaeology Review, May/Jun 2007, 28.

Ehrlich, Carl S., Maeir, Aren M. “Excavating Philistine Gath: Have We Found Goliath’s Hometown?.Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2001, 22-27, 29-31.

Posted in Archaeology Today, News, Biblical Archaeology Sites.

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  • Varghese says

    Pretty cool ha!

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