About the Group
The Materials Science-Based Archaeology Group is concerned with the investigation of all aspects of the metallurgical process, from smelting to metal finishing, and from the first use of alloys in the 5th/4th millennia BC to the Industrial Revolution. The themes of the research can be broadly labelled as archaeological and metallurgical. In archaeology the research derives from post-excavation and museum-based projects involving the characterization of the products and residues of past metallurgical processes. The results are used to explore the place of metals in ancient economies and societies, how they were made, used, traded and re-cycled, how their properties were understood, and what processes were associated with their deposition and survival in the archaeological record. This work is supported by experiments designed to relate this material to the process variables which shaped its formation. These experiments also form a link with the metallurgical objectives of the group. These are to acquire a deep knowledge of the physical and mechanical metallurgy of the metals used in the past, so that we can see how they were understood in the past. The results can be surprising and demand novel research, for example to determine why some alloys have exceptional ductility. This work also links directly with other areas of metallurgy by extending to 6x103 years the time range available for studying a variety of room temperature phenomena from corrosion to precipitation, and with results applicable in such diverse fields as electronic packaging and the storage of nuclear waste.

Material Science-Based Archaeology Group Members

Peter Northover - Senior Research Fellow
Chris Salter - Research Fellow
Brian Gilmour - Academic Visitor

Meg Abraham - Research Student (DPhil)

Fay Horbury - Research Student (Part II)

Ann Colwin - Volunteer Assistant


Current Research Projects


  1. Non-ferrous and precious metallurgy in the European Iron Age.
  2. Application of microprobe and metallographic techniques to numismatic problems.
  3. Early metallurgy in the Upper Euphrates Basin..
  4. Investigation of the relationship between slag inclusion compositions and welding practice
  5. Effects of cremation on copper alloys.
  6. Precipitation of copper in silver alloys.
  7. Application of the scanning proton microprobe to the analysis of Egyptian bronze.
  8. Study of possible Bronze Age copper smelting debris from the Great Orme, Gwynedd, Wales
  9. Study of the products of the experimental reproduction of the process iron working at Bryn Y Castell and Crawcwellt Sites, Gwynedd.
  10. Effects of conservation techniques in bronze
  11. Anglo-Saxon Ferrous Technology
  12. The development of rail steels
  13. Database of British iron working sites .


(1) Non-ferrous and precious metallurgy in the European Iron Age

Dr J.P. Northover, M. Schindler*, C. Zingerle**

The study of copper-based and precious metal alloys from excavations and hoards of the pre-Roman Iron Age is leading for the first time to an understanding how these metals were made and traded in a period when iron had become the dominant utilitarian metal. Material is now available to illustrate how production on individual sites was organized and what techniques were used together. Attention is also focussed on cemeteries to look for associations between gender and status of individuals and the technical quality of artefacts buried with them. (*Abteilung Ur-und Frügeschichte, Universität Zürich, Switzerland; **Institut für Ur-und Frühgeschichte, Universität Wien, Austria)
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(2) Application of microprobe and metallographic techniques to numismatic problems

Dr J.P. Northover, Dr D.M. Metcalf*, Dr C.E. King*, Dr L. Treadwell*

The Cameca SEMPROBE is used to study the copper-, silver- and gold-based alloys used for a variety of coinages. Current projects involve Roman base-silver coinages of the later 3rd century AD, the silver and base-metal coinages of medieval England, the coinage of the pre-Roman Iron Age, Indo-Greek and Islamic coinages. Very large databases of analyses have been and are being assembled in all these areas and attention is now directed to new methods for interrogating these. (*Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
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(3) Early metallurgy in the Upper Euphrates Basin.

Dr J.P. Northover, Dr K. Pragg*, Dr G. Philip**

Microanalysis and metallography have been used to characterize the metalwork from a number of major excavations in the upper Euphrates basin. The sites straddle political and economics boundaries of the 3rd millennium B.C. during the period which bronze became the main utilitarian metal. The results have given us a new understanding of the way in which bronze became part of the metal economy and have also focussed our attention on the great importance of recycling in these early cities. (* University of Manchester, ** Department of Archaeology, University of Durham)
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(4) Investigation of the relationship between slag inclusion compositions and welding practice

C. J. Salter; Dr. B. J. J. Gi1mour

A study of the changes in slag inclusion and metal compositions that occur during the forge welding of iron.  In  particular  those  changes  seen  in phosphoritic/non-phosphoritic composite iron artefacts. (In collaboration with The Royal Armouries, Leeds)
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(5) Effects of cremation on copper alloys.

Dr J. P. Northover

The effects of high temperatures on copper alloys in oxidizing, neutral and reducing atmospheres are being studied by optical metallography and by experimental replication. The results are used to determine the placement of grave goods in cremation pyres to assist in interpreting the burial rites. (In collaboration with Wessex Archeology)
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(6) Precipitation of copper in silver alloys

Dr. J.P. Northover, J. Hirx*

The discontinuous precipitation of copper at grain boundaries from supersaturated solution at room temperature in wrought and annealed silver alloys with 2-10% copper has been advanced as an indicator of age. This project will make the first transmission electron microscopy studies of the morphology and structure of the precipitates, determine the length, if any, of an incubation period, and find the conditions under which precipitation changes from discontinuous to continuous. The possibility of accelerating the discontinuous precipitation by annealing at intermediate temperatures will be explored.
(*Conservation Section, Los Angelas County Museum of Art)
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(7) Application of the scanning proton microprobe to the analysis of Egyptian bronze

Dr J.P. Northover, Dr G.W. Grime, M.H. Abraham

The requirements of museum collections have stimulated this project in non-destructive and minimally destructive analysis of ancient Egyptian bronze. The aim is to use a laser to mill sub-millimetre diameter windows in the patina on selected bronzes and then use the SPM to analyse the metal as it is exposed, with the X-ray mapping facility employed to make basic metallographic observations. An experimental programme will develop the best mode of operation and assess the quality of the analyses in comparison with sample-based analysis.
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(8) Study of possible Bronze Age copper smelting debris from the Great Orme, Gwynedd, Wales

C.J.Salter, Dr. J. P. Northover., S. Jones*

Although there is extensive evidence of Bronze Age mining activity in Britain, as yet no evidence of prehistoric copper smelting has been discovered on the British mainland. A small quantity of slag-like from contexts dated to cfrca 1580 BC are being studied to determine its nature and mode of origin. This  will  include  experimental reproduction. (*Gwynedd Archaeological Trust)
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(9) Study of the products of the experimental reproduction of iron working process at the Bryn y Castell and Crawcwellt Sites, Gwynedd

C.J.Salter, P. Crew*

A series of iron smelting an smithing experiments have been carried out to reproduce the metal and other iron
working debris from these important Iron Age sites. Presently, this material is being studied, an attempt  to
fully   understand  the chemistry, microstructure  and mechanical  properties  of the different types of iron and
steel produced. (*Snowdonia National Park Study Centre, Meantwrog, Gwynedd )
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(10) Effects of conservation techniques in bronze

Dr. J. P. Northover, N. Norman*, M. Sahlstedt**

A combination of optical and scanning electron microscopy,  electron  microprobe  analysis  and PIXE/RBS spectrometry will be used to compare the effects of different conservation methods of a group of Bronze Age tools and weapons. Particular aftention will be paid to the preservation of surface detail during a  cleaning and treatment, and to the distribution of inhibiting species in the corrosion and patina after treatment.(*Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum;  **Conservation  Institute, Gothenburg University)
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(11) Anglo-Saxon Ferrous Technology

C.J. Salter, G. Hey*, B.J.J. Gilmour, K. Penn***, T. Mallin**

A systematic survey of the ferrous artefacts from a number of East Anglian and Midland sites is being carried out to determine range and distribution of various Anglo-Saxon black-smithing skills and technologies. (*Oxford Archaeological Unit;***Norfolk Archaeological Unit, **Cambridgeshire Archaeology)
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(12)The development of rail steels

Dr. J. P. Northover, F. Horbury, D. Wrjght*

The collections of the National Railway Museum will be utilised to study the development of materials for rails. The collection extends from cast iron tramplates at the end of the 18th century through wrought iron to early Bessemer steel to eutectoid and alloy steels. Metallography and microanalysis will be used to characterise the irons and steels and the results will be compared with the documentary history of the subject. The project is designed in particular to examine the impact  of steel  and understand the  problems associated with its introduction in railway use. (*National Railway Museum, York)
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(13) A data-base of British Iron-working sites

A. Colwin, C.J. Salter, The Archaeology Committee of the Historical Metallurgy Society

A database of as many iron working sites dating to before 1600 is being built up. At present it contains over 1900 sites. It hoped that this database will prove useful for archaeologist studying the production, and use of iron and its alloys. It already has shown that the field data is very much biassed by the location of the field-workers.
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  Last edited 13th Jan 2000 CJS
© JPN & C. J.S - University of Oxford 2000