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Content archived on 2024-05-14

The microbial and physico-chemical degradation of bone as an indicator in the deterioration of the European archaeological property


The study of archaeological bone, both as animal and human skeletal remains, and as worked objects, provides a wealth of information about the people of our past and the way they lived.

Unfortunately, bone is subject to degradation. Moreover, field archaeologists in several countries have evidence that the quality of ancient bone is much worse if compared with material recovered from similar soil and climatic conditions many years ago. In addition, to the natural process of degradation, industrialization and agriultural practices apparently have cause world-wide dramatic changes in the soil environment of archaeological remains and the implications for our cultural heritage are all too clear.
Unfortunately, current understanding of the processes of acidification and oxidation of the soil are not sufficiently advanced for specialists in the field of cultural heritage management, which hinders adequate measures. This has already has led and still leads to a tremendous loss of archaeological information. It is clear that insight into this pan-European evironmental problem only can be achieved by multidiscipllinary research involving and integrating a variety of science-based techniques present at various laboratories within and outside the field of archaeological heritage management. The main issue of research will be the effects of environmental acidification on bone in a well-defined and carefully selected number of archaeological soil conditions in Europe.

This will lead to:

- the establishment of the relevant bone degradation mechanisms;
- an assessment of the limits, benefits and appropriate application of used methods, both with respect to future research and the definition of preservation measures;

- transfer of the results to archaeological heritage management and the prediction of the long-term performance of bone in characteristic archaeological soil environments.

This transfer of information is of high importance, both scientifically and economically. Failure to predict that buried archaeological material will suffer irretrievable damage or loss can have an impact just as great as driving a new highway through a site. This forces specialists in the field of archaeological heritage management to decide if a site must be excavated today or can be left safely for future generations. The latter decision means in some cases substantial costs for the preservation of the site by taking measures, which can be done more adequate applying the knowledge through this project. Moreover, these costs will in all cases be lower than the costs for labour-intensive excavation.

Chemically and microbially influenced reactions are considered to be the main degradation mechanisms of bone. Therefore, a precise description will be given of the chemical and microbial degradation state of archaeological bone in relation to its burial environment. This requires an multidisciplinary approach in the fields of archaeozoology/osteology, microbiology, (in)organic geochemstry, soil science, macromolecular biologists and specialist in the field of archaeological conservation. Analyses of ancient bone and of archaeological soil types sampled from several archaeological periods and archaeological contexts, within various climatic zones in Europe by all these disciplines will be a major part of the project. This will be accompanied by experimental studies to get insight into the chemical and microbial degradation of bone in artificial soil systems. Comparison of the analytical results from the field and from the laboratory experiments will allow assessment of the likely effect on archaeological bone deterioration. These results can be used to make predictions with respect to the degradation behavior of other components of the archaeological record in the same or a similar soil environment. The project, therefore, highly contributes to the improvement of the quality assessment of archaeological sites and it will be innovative with respect to the categorizaton of sites in terms of their preservation.
Key words: archaeological heritage management, archaeology, bone, environmental archaeometry, conservation science, risk assessment, deterioration, degradation mechanisms, microbial degradation, soil science

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