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Nuclear Art and Artefact Preservation Celebrates 50 Years

Artefacts, workshop participants Grenoble

Participants of the cultural heritage preservation workshop in Grenoble, France, visited various museums, which use nuclear techniques to conserve and preserve their artefacts. (Photo: IAEA)

For the past 50 years, many museums around the world have used nuclear techniques to help preserve some of the world’s most important historical and cultural artefacts. From the famous ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, to 14th century paintings by Venetian masters, radiation technology plays a role in maintaining and characterizing cultural heritage.

To celebrate this jubilee, the IAEA, in collaboration with France’s ARC-Nucleart, hosted a workshop and meeting of experts in Grenoble on radiation technologies for cultural heritage preservation. With over 100 participants from Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean, experts exchanged ideas and reflected on the priceless artefacts nuclear techniques have helped to preserve and study, characterizing the age and history of significant objects. It was followed by a day reflecting on some of the most fascinating stories of preserved artefacts and discoveries made over the past 50 years. 

“Before the use of nuclear techniques in conservation and preservation, heritage objects often decayed due to biological attack, or corroded and withered with time, losing part of their cultural value,” said Laurent Cortella, Head of Facility Management and Research Engineer at ARC-Nucleart. “Over the last half a century, this problem has been mitigated through the use of gamma irradiation for conserving archaeological, historical and ethnographic cultural objects. We need to continue understanding how materials degraded and developing new treatment techniques so museums around the world are able to display invaluable pieces of art.”

Wooden objects, for instance, are often exposed to infestations of insects, fungi and algae, putting them in danger of structural weakness and degradation. The famous early 18th century statue of Saint Maurice, the Egyptian military leader who headed the legendary Theban Legion of Rome in the 3rd century, for instance, faced significant structural weaking. Restoration experts at ARC-Nucleart exposed the statue to gamma radiation to disinfect and consolidate it and help give back its original structure.

Before restauration of the statute of Saint Maurice, the horse’s legs were crushed and ruptured due to infestation by insects and growing fungi. The use of nuclear techniques allowed the statue to be reassembled to its near original form. (Photo: ARC-Nucleart)

Nuclear science to preserve and conserve artefacts

The IAEA supports countries through coordinated research projects to apply nuclear science and technology, in order to understand their cultural history by characterizing items of historical or cultural importance and to help them preserve such items, for example through nuclear analytical techniques, such as 2D and 3D artefact imaging using ion beams, X-rays and neutrons, radioisotope dating, and artefact consolidation and preservation through application of radiation treatment methodologies. With the expertise and collaboration of ARC-Nucleart, IAEA projects have helped experts especially in Brazil, Mexico, and Romania conserve their own cultural heritage artefacts.

In September this year, the IAEA designated its first two collaborating centres in the area of cultural heritage: France’s University Paris-Saclay and the National Centre for Radiation Research and Technology at the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (NCRRT).

Following the success of the 2017 publication on Uses of Ionizing Radiation for Tangible Cultural Heritage Conservation, the IAEA is currently preparing a new publication on procedures for selecting and applying appropriate irradiation methodologies for the preservation of archived materials and of cultural heritage objects, which will be published in 2022.

The IAEA has three on-going regional technical cooperation projects covering Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean aimed at strengthening countries capacities to adopt radiation and nuclear-based techniques that support characterization and preservation of cultural heritage artefacts. “By bringing together the skills and knowledge of technical experts from various nuclear fields from nuclear imaging to radiation chemists, isotope analysts and historians, the IAEA supports countries on how nuclear techniques can be used to preserve, conserve and understand the history of art and objects of historical and cultural significance — a great example of the peaceful use of atoms,” said Tomo Furusawa, an IAEA Programme Management Officer and co-organiser of the event in Grenoble.

The interest in cultural heritage preservation through nuclear techniques is ever-growing: The IAEA’s International Conference on Applications of Radiation Science and Technology (ICARST-2022), to be held from 22 to 26 August 2022, will also feature sessions dedicated to the topic.

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