Using light to describe the ancient world

Charlotte Doney during her undergraduate internship at the Museum Conservation Institute. Charlotte is shown here sitting in front of an FT-Raman spectrometer in Dr. Odile Madden's Modern Materials lab. Photo source:

Charlotte Doney during her undergraduate internship at the Museum Conservation Institute. Charlotte is sitting in front of an FT-Raman spectrometer in Dr. Odile Madden’s Modern Materials lab. Photo source.

My colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution and I have recently published an article that explores the preservation of old collagen. I think this is a great methods paper that could lead on to some really interesting applications, and I will get to the details of the article in a little bit. First though, I want to highlight one of the most fun aspects of this paper – a good chunk of the work was done by Charlotte Doney, an undergraduate intern from George Washington University.

In 2012, Dr. Christine France successfully attracted funding for undergraduate students to take up research projects in the Museum Conservation Institute. This Institute is housed within the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center, in Suitland, Maryland. Charlotte Doney was interested in working with Dr. France and Dr. Odile Madden on a project these senior researchers had discussed some years prior – can Raman spectroscopy tell us if collagen in an ancient bone is well preserved? Charlotte was interested in both the challenge and answer.

Raman spectroscopy provides chemical information about a sample, and in the case of an old bone, is useful for studying both the collagen and the bone mineral. Furthermore, the isotopic compositions of carbon and nitrogen in collagen can tell us about the lifestyle of the person or animal the bone is from. Raman spectroscopy doesn’t report on the isotopic composition of collagen – this is the job of a mass spectrometer. Instead, Raman spectroscopy gives us an idea about how much collagen is present in the bone. As collagen degrades, the isotopic composition becomes less meaningful about the original lifestyle of the person or animal. As collagen degrades, there is less and less of it left in the bone, and we can detect this with Raman spectroscopy. Charlotte collected Raman spectra from bones that had known isotopic compositions.

I was working in Dr. Madden’s lab at the time and had the privilege of training Charlotte to collect Raman spectra, and then later I analysed the data and we each cowrote the now published manuscript.

During my time at the University of Otago and the University of Cape Town I hadn’t worked alongside undergraduate interns, so this was one of the new experiences I encountered at the Smithsonian. I had undertaken (and later, worked with) summer studentships at the University of Otago, and looking back there are many similarities. A dedicated research project, a short and fixed time frame, an opportunity to work with professional researchers. I can’t value these experiences highly enough, and if the student is particularly motivated, like Charlotte, then the work can be recognised as a formal publication. How good is that!

France, C. A. M., Thomas, D. B., Doney, C. R. and Madden, O. 2014. FT-Raman spectroscopy as a method for screening collagen diagenesis in bone. Journal of Archaeological Science 42: 346–355


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