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Artemis Testing Lab Identifies Authentic Artifacts Using XRF Analysis

By Michelle Wright - juin 2, 2020

When you visit a museum or gallery, have you ever wondered if an ancient artifact or prized painting is actually real—or just a fake?

Museums and galleries around the world rely on Serge Fayeulle, cofounder of Artemis Testing Lab, to answer this important question. He uses X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis and thermoluminescence (TL) technologies to evaluate the authenticity of art and artifacts, including archeological pottery, jewelry, and alloys.

This blog post provides an overview of these techniques and explores how Artemis Testing Lab uses them to accurately identify authentic pieces.

Staff at Artemis Testing Lab testing a brass vessel with Vanta hanheld XRF analyzer

Identifying Authentic Artifacts with Handheld XRF and Thermoluminescence

The thermoluminescence technique can evaluate the age of archeological pottery by measuring the accumulated radiation dose in the object. Essentially, the older the pottery, the more radiation it will have absorbed. This technology requires a very small amount of sample to test (approximately 2 mg, which must be drilled).

To get a better approximation of the age of an object by thermoluminescence, it is necessary to know the composition of the clay, particularly the amount of beta emitters (potassium, uranium, and thorium) present in the clay. This is done with XRF.

Handheld XRF is a nondestructive tool that emits X-rays to determine the elemental composition of an object. This added information helps them determine a more accurate age for the pottery and other artifacts. Since XRF is nondestructive, fast, and can analyze a wide range of materials, Artemis Testing Lab finds it’s a good fit for evaluating precious artifacts.

So, what tool did Artemis Testing Lab turn to for XRF analysis? You guessed it—our very own Vanta™ analyzer.

Here are a few ways Artemis Testing Lab uses the analyzer:

  • Clay analysis: Vanta XRF analyzers can run a full analysis, providing important information on clay items that can help them determine if they are fake or restored. For example, inauthentic pieces are often restored with plaster. A quick XRF scan can identify if the item is plaster. If the answer is yes, then they know it’s inauthentic.
  • Pigment analysis in clays: Today, modern pigments contain different elements than pigments from earlier centuries. For example, Artemis Testing Lab once analyzed pieces estimated to be pre-Columbian, Inca, and Moche from 500 AD. But when they ran the XRF analysis, they made an important discovery. The white pigment was titanium oxide, which was only recently discovered in 1900. This indicated the paint was modern, meaning the item was a replica.
  • Metal analysis: Working with galleries and dealers means they need to perform metal analysis. Dr. Fayeulle uses the Vanta XRF analyzer in Alloy Plus mode to quickly identify the elemental composition of a metal artifact, enabling him to determine its approximate age. Once he knows the composition, he checks if the analysis is compatible with the estimated time period.

For example, the metallurgy of brass is fairly recent. Prior to 1500, copper didn’t contain more than 28% zinc. That means a supposed Roman item that contains 35% or 40% zinc in copper is impossible during that time. While this analysis can’t provide an exact age, it can help them verify if the composition aligns with the time period.

An Urartu bronze helmet tested by Artemis Lab. XRF analysis that is made of bronze and composition is compatible with the object being ancient

Common Materials Tested with XRF for Artifact Analysis

All in all, Artemis Testing Lab evaluates a wide variety of materials with XRF to identify genuine art and artifacts. Common items tested include:

Iron, steel, silver, gold, bronze, copper, and platinum
Clays and pigments for pottery and other artifacts
Gemstones, including jade and sapphire in ancient jewelry

Artemis Testing Lab uses both of these technologies to assist art museums, galleries, private collectors, auctions, and dealers in the US and globally.