Synchrotron radiation and laboratory micro X-ray computed tomography—useful tools for the material identification of prehistoric objects made of ivory, bone or antler†
Archaeological bone, ivory and antler, as well as objects manufactured from them, are largely studied to extract as much information as possible from these materials. Among others, one key question in archaeology is the exact identification of the material. Even if the identification of different kinds of osseous material seems to be trivial in many cases, it can be a difficult issue when small, heavily carved and more or less altered ancient objects are concerned. This study was focused on the determination of parameters allowing the distinction of archaeological ivory, bone and antler in order to identify the raw material used for the manufacture of prehistoric objects. The high performance of synchrotron radiation (SR) and laboratory-based micro X-ray computed tomography (microCT), providing highly resolved three-dimensional information on the micromorphology, permitted the establishment of such distinctive features of modern references of ivory, antler, land mammal and whale bones: ivory shows characteristic tubular pores with a diameter of about 1 to 2 μm, bone and antler show typical osteon structures. In our measured references, antler shows on average larger and more elongated shaped pores of the osteons compared to terrestrial mammal bone. This feature however depends very much on the original localization of the studied sample within the antler. Whale bones can be distinguished from the other osseous materials by a cancellous, osteoporotic-like structure with irregularly distributed rounded porosities with diameters reaching up to 500 μm. These characteristics have also been tested on determined Palaeolithic fragments, as diagenetic changes during burial have to be considered and may lead to the modification of the parameters established on the basis of modern bone references. In general, the chemical composition of bone objects can change drastically over time while micromorphological features, as evidenced by microCT, seem to be less susceptible to such alterations. In addition, microCT enables the comparison of inner and possibly less altered parts of the objects, and can be considered as completely non-destructive for small mineralised prehistoric objects. In this study, specific morphological features allowing the distinction of ivory and of whale bone from other bone and antler material were determined, even for altered materials dating back to Palaeolithic periods. Thus, we provide, in addition to archaeozoological, chemical and isotopic markers, a new non-destructive tool to identify some raw materials used for the fabrication of osseous objects ranging from recent to prehistoric periods.