Several of the blog posts and class discussions over the semester have pointed to the misuse of digital technologies in reprinting or ‘faking’ artifacts or cultural antiquities. Although a majority of the recreations are sold to tourists as knick-knacks and souvenirs, the surge is artifact replication represents a major hindrance on the procurement of authentic artifacts for academic research and museum curation.
Geologist Timothy Rose of the Smithsonian Intuition’s Analytical Laboratories is fighting fire with fire by using his lab’s nanoscale scanning electron microscope (nanoSEM) to determine the authenticity of ancient Mesoamerican artifacts.
In an ongoing study, Rose and his colleagues have analysed hundred of artifacts from ancient Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacan and Mezcala civilizations dating from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 600.
As many of the artifacts under investigation could not be removed from their museums or sectioned to fit into the machine, silicone molds were made of the objects to study tool marks and tiny grains that were removed from deep within the artifacts cracks. This led to the discovered of single-celled algae with cell walls made of silica- a substance that would have been used to create a shiny finish on certain artifacts during the manufacturing process.
Artifacts confiscated by the federal government were analyzed using the nanoSEM to detect if flakes of modern gypsum plaster are present- essentially the objects are being examined for indicative signs that they are fakes. Rose notes that only a small percentage of the artifacts examined showed modern tool marks or evidence of recent origins.