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ARA8186 : Ancient Metals: Technology and Scientific Analysis

  • Offered for Year: 2021/22
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Duncan Wright
  • Lecturer: Dr Alasdair Charles, Ms Diana Blumberg
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


The module introduces the archaeology and scientific analysis of ancient and historic metals, with special reference to copper and iron alloys. As part of the module, we will understand the microstructure and mechanical properties of metals; how people mined for the ore in antiquity, how they smelted it, and how smelting technology changed over time; and how corrosion may alter the surface of ancient metals. Most importantly, we will learn and practise three cutting-edge techniques of archaeological metal analysis: metallography (including sample preparation and polishing); elemental characterisation (using a hand-held X-Ray Fluorescence device); and metalwork wear analysis (using a stereomicroscope). Original metal artefacts from the Great North Museum collections will be examined, as well as extensive ore/mineral specimens and replica Bronze Age objects from the School’s own teaching collections. The course is open to all Master’s students irrespective of their background knowledge in chemistry and materials science.

• To provide students with a critical understanding of ancient metals (especially copper and iron alloys) including their extractive and manufacturing technologies.
• To provide students with the theoretical and practical skills to carry out metallography, portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis, and metalwork wear analysis safely and professionally.
• To introduce metalwork microstructure and surface corrosion.

Outline Of Syllabus

- The chaîne opératoire of copper: mining, smelting, casting, and finishing copper-alloy objects
- The chaîne opératoire of iron: mining, smelting, and forging iron and steel objects
- Understanding metals: microstructure and surface degradation
- Metallography: theory and practice including sample preparation
- XRF analysis: H&S, theory, and practice
- Metalwork wear analysis and optical microscopy: theory and practice

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture61:006:00PiP or recorded lectures
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion601:0060:00Guided independent work towards assessed student project
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesPractical63:0018:00Metallography, XRF and wear analysis PiP lab practicals
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities112:0022:00Recommended weekly reading and other supplementary learning material
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study185:0085:00Independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDissertation/project related supervision33:009:00Supervised PiP lab sessions for student assessed projects
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

- Lectures introduce the main topics covered in the syllabus including the extractive technology and manufacture of copper and iron alloys; lab H&S; metalwork microstructure; and surface degradation.
- Lab practicals introduce and practise metallography, XRF analysis (using a hand-held device), and metalwork wear analysis.
- Project-related supervisions offer students opportunities to work on their assessed projects in supervised lab sessions.
- Assessment completion and preparation provides students with unsupervised time to work towards their assessed projects.
- Structured research and reading activities provide weekly opportunities to further subject knowledge through recommended reading and other supplementary learning material.
- Guided independent study provides students with independent study time.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written Examination202M20class exam consisting of a multiple-choice quiz evaluating knowledge and understanding of phase diagrams and alloy properties
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Report2A803000 word analytical report
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

- The class exam (multiple-choice quiz) evaluates knowledge and understanding of phase diagrams and alloy properties.
- The analytical report evaluates students’ ability to carry out the analysis of a small assemblage of archaeological metal objects safely, proficiently, and independently. It also tests their ability to interpret the analytical data in light of the archaeological literature and draw inferences of general validity. There are two routes to the assessed analytical report, which students will be asked to choose from: the XRF student project and the wear-analysis student project.
-       XRF student project. The student will carry out the XRF analysis of a small metalwork assemblage comprising objects of various periods, base metals, and alloys, and write a 3000 word report in which objects are appropriately characterised and interpreted. The report will include an archaeological contextualisation of the objects.
-       Wear analysis student project. The student will carry out the use-wear analysis of a small assemblage of prehistoric and/or historic copper-alloy objects, and write a 3000 word report in which the objects are appropriately characterised and interpreted. The report will include an archaeological contextualisation of the objects.

If public health circumstances require it, the in-class exam will be adminstered online instead.

Reading Lists