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Preserving Cultural and Natural Heritage with the Help of Nuclear Techniques


Experts from around the world shared how nuclear techniques are helping to preserve cultural and natural heritage, during a side event at the 65th IAEA General Conference today. (Image, from left to right: ARC-Nucléart, France; Peace Palace Library, The Netherlands; ARC-Nucleart, France; as featured by the IAEA)

Nuclear techniques play an increasingly important role in preserving our cultural and natural heritage, concluded experts at the virtual event, Atoms for Heritage, held on the sidelines of the 65th IAEA General Conference today.

“The IAEA helps countries to use nuclear science and technology to examine, preserve and restore cultural heritage artefacts,” said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, at the opening of the event. “We provide trainings and support research in this area by bringing together institutes from across the world through coordinated research projects.”

“This side event is part of the joint efforts of the IAEA and France to promote and enhance the applications of nuclear techniques for cultural and natural heritage characterisation and preservation to build bridges between people across the globe towards peace,” said Ambassador Xavier Sticker, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations and International Organisations in Vienna. Nearly 400 participants attended the event.

Nuclear analytical techniques, such as accelerator-based techniques, are powerful tools to gain a better insight into heritage materials and objects for their preservation. They are applied to analyse what cultural artefacts are made of, as well as to determine the time and place when they were created. Scientists can also use nuclear analytical techniques, such as ion beams, X-rays and neutrons, to create 2D and 3D imaging of the object with high sensitivity and accuracy.

Experts at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland, used this technology to analyse various cultural artefacts, including 14th-18th century paintings by Venetian masters and ancient Egyptian mummies.

“By using the latest 3D technology, we can transform paintings and other 2D objects into 3D objects to examine in detail their internal structure and the materials they are made of,” said Lukasz Kownacki, Radiologist at the European Health Center Otwock in Poland. “This so-called Mixed Reality technology opens new research possibilities and education opportunities.”

Nuclear analytical techniques, such as radiocarbon dating, are also used to determine the age of cultural and natural heritage objects. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope, which decays over time in predictable ways. Scientists examine this decay to find out how old artefacts are or the order in which certain events happened.

Experts used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of an ancient aquaculture system in the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara people in south-eastern Australia. Recently inscribed in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, it is the world’s most extensive and oldest aquaculture system dated by nuclear techniques to be 6,000 years old.

The Gunditjmara used the local volcanic rock to construct channels, weirs and dams and manage water flows in order to systematically trap, store and harvest short-finned eel called kooyang, explained Geraldine Jacobsen, Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

“These aquaculture systems had been studied for many decades, but their age was unknown,” she said. “It was through applying ultra-sensitive isotopic analysis for radiocarbon dating that the antiquity of the systems was determined and provided evidence of the extensive history of Gunditjmara use and management of and connection to this landscape.”

Although highly sensitive and accurate, nuclear analytical techniques can, if not applied properly, potentially damage the treated artefact. The IAEA is leading international collaboration and joint efforts towards the safe analysis of cultural and natural heritage objects.

Restoring cultural artefacts with the help of radiation

Long term preservation of unique and non-replaceable objects of cultural value can be challenging due to storage conditions, flooding events and changing climate. Ionizing radiation is applied to disinfect and improve the durability of artefacts.

“Using gamma rays for preservation is non-destructive, done at room temperature without any physical contact and with no additional substances, unlike conventional decontamination methods that often involve heat or chemicals that can alter material,” said Pablo Vasquez, R&D and Innovation Manager Radiation at the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute in Brazil.

In Brazil, where the climate, humidity, natural disasters, fungi and termites can destroy books, paintings, wooden pieces, furniture, sculptures and modern art, this technique has been used for decades to preserve, conserve and restore art and cultural heritage objects.

“In Egypt, we use radiation technologies to treat cultural assets, which are thousands of years old,” said Hassan Abd El-Rehim, Professor in Radiation Chemistry at the National Research Centre of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority. “Bio-deteriorating agents, such as bacteria, fungi and insect eggs, can be removed quickly from the artefact without damaging it due to the high penetration power of gamma radiation.”

International collaboration in preserving cultural and natural heritage

The IAEA recently 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).

Under an agreement signed last week, the IAEA and the University Paris-Saclay will carry out research in areas such as characterization and dating of cultural artefacts with the help of accelerator technology; developing methods for safe analysis of objects of cultural value; data analysis and data sharing; training and outreach; and combatting illicit trafficking.

The NCRRT will work with the IAEA to enhance the use of industrial radiation processing and nuclear techniques in cultural heritage preservation.

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