XRF Internship at the Centre for Research Collections

Find out what our Employ.ed Intern, Cameron Perumal, got up to in the final weeks of her project at the CRC in this week’s blog…

As I near the end of my internship, I have started reflecting on all the skills I have gained in just 8 short weeks.

As part of the University’s Employ.ed Internship Programme this summer, I was the Scientific Analysis of Heritage Collections Intern – or, trying to better understand the use of XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) in conservation, so that we can engage more with the University’s special collections, in terms of its materiality. XRF is a non-destructive, surface analysis technique used to understand the elemental composition of artefacts, and to gain more historical context of their function.

Short-term projects that I have worked on have included: a framed collection of old British medals (to determine whether they were electrotype copies and to understand their composition); a large Giambologna bronze horse from the Torrie Collection (to gain more information that can be mapped onto a 3D image of the horse for an enhanced user experience); ancient Egyptian ushabtis (to attempt to classify and date them); Indian miniature paintings from the Tasawir collection (to understand pigment composition); and a page of text that claims to be written in West Port serial killer William Burke’s blood from a Burke and Hare scrapbook (to confirm whether Burke’s blood was really used).

Cameron with the XRF

The Egyptian ushabtis are extremely fascinating – after comparing those in the University’s collection to ushabtis in online archives and databases, they could be almost 3,000 years old! Being able to analyse these artefacts was my eight-year-old self’s dream come true (at one point I wanted to become an Egyptologist). Ushabtis, also known as shabtis or ushebtis, are Egyptian funeral statues that were buried with the dead to fulfil manual labour in the afterlife, in place of the deceased. By identifying defining features on the ushabtis, matching these to ushabtis from different dynasties during the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE), and combining this with the results of the XRF analysis, which was used to determine elemental composition, I was able to narrow down the time periods in which these ushabtis might have been produced. This was quite possibly the most challenging, but also most rewarding, research project I have done this summer!

Egyptian ushabtis. May be 3000 years old!

One of the most sensational (in terms of infamy and outrageousness) artefacts that I looked at was the Burke and Hare scrapbook. A page that is written in the blood of William Burke is the most gruesome component of this book. I conducted XRF analysis to determine whether any iron was present in the handwriting. Iron is a component of blood, so one would expect it to appear in the resultant spectra. I was not able to conclusively detect the presence of iron, which could be due to the paper composition. I then shone a UV light over the page, where the ink did not glow, as expected, but the paper did not glow either (unexpected). Feeling a bit lost as to how to continue, I got in contact with Cat Irving, the Human Remains Conservator at Surgeon’s Hall Museum. Cat was able to advise on a minimally destructive identification (but not visible) technique of letting a few flakes of the blood react with the pH indicator phenolpthalein on filter paper (the Kastle-Myer test). Cat suggested that the colour of this ink, which is dark brown, almost black, is indicative of the oxidation of (old) blood, but being able to carry out this test would lead to a definitive result.

Letter possibly written in blood

As part of my internship, I have compiled a list of XRF projects into a long-term research plan for the Centre of Research Collections, for more (internal and public) engagement with the collections, and to allow for more research collaboration and output.

I was also able to engage in outreach, by presenting on XRF analysis and its uses in conservation and also designing an infographic, for internal use; as well as a short film to raise awareness of XRF analysis in conservation for consumption by the general public.

I have learned a lot about both conservation, and the fascinating practical applications of physics, which is what drew me to the internship initially. I think that this internship has allowed me to widen my perspective of what physics can apply to, and the different ways in which people engage with science. I will definitely be applying the interdisciplinary approach, I’ve developed over the past two months, in the way I think about physics!

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