Materials Science in Archaeology

Materials Science in archaeology is concerned with the generation and application of knowledge relating the composition, structure, and processing of materials to their properties and uses. INAA is just one of many techniques that we utilize in materials science analyses.


Archaeology has long been an enthusiastic borrower from other disciplines such as ecology, geology, and geography. Over the past 10-20 years, we have increasingly borrowed from the material sciences as well. The archaeological literature is now replete with acronyms that connote hard, objective science: INAA, SEM, TEM, ICP-MS, LIA, SIMS, OES, etc.


Formerly, these technical analyses were relegated to an appendix at the end of a site report. Now, however, they are increasingly taking center stage as lines of investigation in their own right, crucial to investigations of provenance, production, technology, and exchange.


As a discipline, we need to become educated users of materials science techniques. Although we may rely on the assistance of technical specialists, in the end, it is the archaeologist who remains responsible for integrating the results of scientific procedures into culturally meaningful, archaeological interpretation.


In order to engage in materials science, we need to educate ourselves on several fronts:


how to take measurements using a particular technique so that we understand what affects the quality of those measurements;


what these measurements mean (i.e. just what are we measuring?);


how to analyze or clarify patterns of variability within the resulting measurements; and


how to interpret and relate these patterns to the anthropological or historical question.


Oregon State University Archaeometry Lab