A scientist working with very small bones
Dr Simon Mays using an endoscope to extract small ear bones known as ossicles. © Historic England
Dr Simon Mays using an endoscope to extract small ear bones known as ossicles. © Historic England

Investing in Scientific Research

How investing in new scientific equipment for Historic England benefits the Historic Environment sector in the UK and internationally.

Scientific research at Historic England

The Historic England Investigative Science Team comprises 30 heritage scientists located across the country. They provide technical advice and applied research for Historic England and for the English Heritage Trust (through a Shared Service Agreement), and they support wider national capability through training, standards, guidance and innovation, thereby sustaining and caring for the historic environment.

The Fort Cumberland Laboratories are at the heart of this service, comprising:

Its strength lies in the unique combination of equipment, skills and resources brought together under one roof which enables multi-disciplinary investigation, reporting and presentation of sites, objects and collections.

The facility is used by our own staff and by external researchers and practitioners via partnerships and collaborative projects. We welcome recreational, vocational and professional visitors for on-site training and events and strive to find new ways to maximise the public value of our work, such as contributing to the Festival of Archaeology

Making the results of our scientific investigations available to everyone is threaded through all that we do and has recently informed two new strands of work: upgrading equipment and supporting an international exchange programme for researchers.

Investing in equipment

In 2020, we were grateful to be awarded two grants.

How the new equipment will benefit research

These grants will enhance research and training facilities and transform our imaging capabilities, providing virtual access to our collections and allowing us to showcase the research we do as well as what we find to new audiences.

The tree-ring system will support the programme of dendrochronology, primarily on standing buildings (up to about 80 phases/areas annually), through improved efficiency and enhancements with respect to digital recording and archiving of both images and data, thus freeing up the physical samples for emerging techniques (eg oxygen isotope dendrochronology, high-precision AMS radiocarbon wiggle-matching, conifer blue intensity dendrochronology), which are increasingly being employed on sites with samples undated through ring-width dendrochronology.

The digital 3-D microscope will improve our ability to examine objects for investigative conservation purposes, allow accurate microscopic measurement and enable the analysis of small, complex features on artefacts and environmental remains.

The 3-D digital microscope is already being used both to identify material sent into us by researchers and community groups and produce images for publications. This has included digitally recording auditory ossicles (ear bones) from Late Iron Age to Early Saxon burials from Stanwick, Northamptonshire. Measuring only a few millimetres, these are the smallest bones in the body, and are a prime source of well-preserved ancient DNA. They will be analysed as part of a genetic history of Britain project, conducted by the Francis Crick Institute, London, which is examining how populations changed over this key period.

Combined with other evidence, the results will also help us to explore the diversity of the local Stanwick population and how it may have changed over time. Were the people buried in the 5th century AD descendants of the Iron Age inhabitants or were they were ‘stranger[s} in a strange land’ ? (Exodus 2:22).

As well as being good for studying DNA, ear ossicles may show signs of disease, such as chronic ear infections. They are also quite variable in form, for reasons we do not fully understand yet. This means that it is very important to make a good record of these little bones before they are analysed

Investing in new equipment and developing our imaging capabilities not only benefits the Historic Environment sector in the UK. It also means that Historic England can play its part in developing a European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science.

Integrating Platforms for the European Research Infrastructure ON Heritage Science (IPERION-HS) is a new initiative funded by the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 programme, building on the success of IPERION-CH, which focussed on cultural heritage. It seeks to develop a connected infrastructure of research facilities across Europe and beyond, bringing together researchers in humanities and sciences. Historic England is a linked third party in the project (through University College London) and is leading on engaging the global archaeological community with the project.

The core activity of IPERION-HS is to provide funded, Trans-National Access (TNA) for researchers to scientific instruments, data, tools and knowledge outside their geographical base and core area of expertise, in order to develop competence and advance the understanding and conservation of a wide range of cultural heritage, from artefacts to archaeological sites.

Participants must be based in a different country to the infrastructure they wish to access. For example, UK-based researchers would need to visit facilities outside the UK, in any of the other 22 countries that are part of IPERION HS partnership.

There are three different platforms or types of infrastructure that researchers can access - ArchLab, FixLab, and Molab:

  • ArchLab comprises physical collections, including samples, reference materials and datasets from analyses carried by researchers based at the host institution or using the host institution’s collections. Providers include the Groningen Institute of Archaeology, Netherlands, with its extensive zooarchaeology collections, and the Craft Laboratory at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, which focuses on the management and conservation of the built environment.
  • FixLab includes large scientific facilities such as the LABEC radiocarbon dating laboratory in Italy and AGLAE, the Grand Louvre Accelerator for Elemental Analysis, in France, as well as mid-scale facilities with scientific instruments from Scanning Electron Microscopes to Mass Spectrometers.
  • MoLab is an arrangement in which institutions provide mobile scientific equipment and related expertise which can be brought to the object, archaeological site or landscape of interest. It includes remote sensing equipment from Lidar to ground penetrating radar and imaging equipment from laser scanners to imaging methods and scanning applications for non-invasive dendrochronology.

Proposals for Trans-National Access can be put in at any time of the year, with evaluation happening every 5 months; the next call closes on 30 November 2021. If you are interested in putting in a proposal, there are videos on how to apply on the IPERION-HS website. The user helpdesk ([email protected]) is there to answer any queries and can also help match users with heritage scientists based within the 67 organisations that make up the IPERION-HS partnership.

Funding covers researchers’ time spent at the institution being visited, including travel and subsistence costs. A proposal can involve visits to, and collaboration with, more than one institution. Visits can be made by an individual (a user) or a group of individuals (a user group) and can range from a few days to several weeks. The funding also covers the host expert’s time working with the users. Virtual visits are also possible.

We are looking forward to welcoming our first visiting researchers from Italy in the next few months at Fort Cumberland Laboratories. Dr Francesco Grazzi, from the Institute of Applied Physics Sesto Fiorentino, and PhD student Francesco Cantini (University of Florence) are researching 'The Development of Complex Metal Structures in Ancient Bronze and Steel' and will be accessing samples and datasets from work carried out by our materials scientists.

About the authors

Gill Campbell

Head of Fort Cumberland Laboratories

Gill leads the team of heritage scientists based at Fort Cumberland. She is an archaeobotanist and specialises in the analysis of waterlogged material. Her research focuses on the utilization of plant resources in the past, the nature of biocultural heritage and the development and improvement of archaeological science practice. Current projects include the investigation of plant use at two sites: Tintagel Island, Cornwall, and Birdoswald cemetery, Hadrian’s Wall.

Jen Heatchcote PhD

Head of Investigative Science, Historic England

Jen currently leads a team of heritage scientists at Historic England. She started out as a geoarchaeologist, later developing wide-ranging experience in applied scientific and strategic research. Jen’s research interests include environmental risks to the historic environment and landscape change, particularly wetlands.

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