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Summer Science Exhibition 2009

The Palaeodetectives: digging up small molecules with big messages from the past









The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


Molecular and isotopic analyses of ancient pottery revealed milking was widely practiced by our ancestors in the 7th millennium. (Image © istockphoto)

Chemists at the University of Bristol are studying remnant organic molecules preserved in artefacts and geological deposits for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. Combining archaeology with cutting-edge analytical chemistry, they are able to unravel key aspects of the lives of ancient peoples, particularly their diet and agricultural practices.

Modern animals and plants provide reference information for understanding the subtle but stable isotopic and chemical signatures preserved in ancient artefacts.

Professor Richard Evershed from the School of Chemistry said: "While the archaeological record is extraordinarily incomplete, by combining molecular, isotopic and archaeological information we can build up pictures of the ways people lived that were impossible until now. We use the latest analytical chemical techniques in a forensic approach because of the thousands of years that have passed since the evidence was left behind."

One of the major challenges the Bristol scientists have taken on is the study of organic residues preserved in ancient cooking pots. Degraded animal fats left over from food processing are the most common residues detected. Richard's group were able to distinguish the chemical and isotopic signatures of milk and body fats of animals.

Richard continued: "Identifying the milking of animals based on fat residues in Neolithic pottery dating back nearly 9,000 years shows the specificity that can be achieved through these molecular approaches."


Fiona Gill gave a short lunchtime talk on the use of cutting-edge analytical chemistry to reveal the molecules that have been preserved from living things for hundreds or even millions of years - listen to it online (mp3 audio).

See all exhibits from 2009

The Palaeodetectives: digging up small molecules with big messages from the past The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK