How an X-Ray Machine Designed to Examine Airplane Parts Is Changing British Archaeology

How an X-Ray Machine Designed to Examine Airplane Parts Is Changing British Archaeology
A researcher analyzes a cremation urn with the x-ray machine
(Courtesy University of Southampton)

At England's University of Southampton, a sophisticated X-ray machine is being used by archaeologists to make 3-D images of ancient objects while they’re still enclosed in pots, urns, or blocks of soil. Originally developed to scan turbine blades in Rolls-Royce airplanes for flaws, the machine is now making it quicker and easier for scholars to identify some of the thousands of artifacts discovered in Britain every year.

Roger Bland, a coins expert at the British Museum, recently used the X-ray scanner to identify ancient Roman coins from the reigns of Marcus Aurelius, Vespasian, Trajan, and Hadrian that were still inside a pottery cup. The coins have now been removed, cleaned, and put on display in the Museum, the Guardian reports. “Removing the coins from these pots and conserving them can be a very costly and time-consuming process, but Southampton’s scanner — combined with clever software — enables one to identify individual coins in the middle of a mass of coins,” Bland told ARTINFO France via email. “Conventional X-rays can never do this.” Bland said that plans are underway to analyze more archaeological finds using the scanner, including two very rare and fragile Iron Age metal cauldrons that are encased in massive blocks of soil.

The micro-focus X-ray computed tomography scanner — or, in layperson’s terms, X-ray machine — was designed by Nikon with structural engineering applications in mind, and it has the ability to analyze dense, metallic parts at high resolutions. The machine takes X-rays from several angles at once — as many as several thousand images, with each being an individual “slice” of the whole. The software then applies mathematical formulas to create a three-dimensional image of the whole from the various slices.

Southampton’s Mu-Vis Center (an abbreviation for multiscale, multidisciplinary, microtomographic volume imaging) was set up to allow a wide range of users access to the sophisticated facilities. Graeme Earl, an archaeologist at Southampton, told ARTINFO France in an email that the archaeology department was involved in the center from the beginning and was “excited to see that in essence the same approaches used to discern different materials within an aircraft engine work equally well in discriminating different components of hoards [of coins].”