NEUTRON ACTIVATION ANALYSIS IN ARCHAEOLOGY
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
The place of manufacture of ancient ceramic wares (pottery) as opposed to the place where the
ceramic wares were unearthed is an important topic in modern day archaeology1. Through the origin
of pottery invaluable information is obtained on ancient trade routs. Often there is no other way to fix
origin except by chemical analysis. The method that has been most successfully applied to
archaeology is instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA)2,3,4. The expense involved in INAA
and the closure of nuclear reactors has led archaeological scientists to seek alternative methods to
A popular method that is commonly used today is the examination of thin sections of pottery under a
microscope to determine its mineral makeup. This method has its place in certain situations but
cannot replace quantitative chemical analysis. Optical emission spectrometry with inductively
coupled plasma sources (ICP-OE) and mass spectrometry with ICP (ICP-MS) are being applied to
archaeology but are more complicated, less reliable and probably not less expensive than INAA.
Other methods have been tried and these include X-ray fluorescence, proton induced x-ray emission
(PIXE), proton induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) and prompt gamma-rays. All of these methods,
and more, have limitations that make them unsuitable, with rare exception, to archaeological work on
The salient features of INAA as applied to archaeology will be reviewed and a case made that this is
still today the best way to chemically analyze pottery with the precision and accuracy needed for
sourcing pottery. An example will be given on how the analysis of just a few pot shards can provide
clues to their place of manufacture.
Wilson, A. L., Elementary Analysis of Pottery in the study of its Provenance: A Review, Journal of
Archaeological Science 5, 219-236, 1978.
Perlman, I. and Asaro, F., Pottery Analysis by Neutron Activation, Archaeometry 11, 21-52, 1969.
Yellin, J. Gamma-ray Spectral Map of Standard Pottery, Part 1, Radiochimica Acta 35, 107-119, 1984.
Yellin, J. and Cahill, Jane M., Rosette-stamped Handles: Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis, Israel
Exploration Journal 54, 191-213, 2004.