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Protecting Cultural Heritage in ARASIA Countries, through Nuclear Techniques


ARASIA countries have a wealth of archaeological artefacts. Sarcophagi are seen here at the National Museum of Beirut (Photo: L. Eid/IAEA).

A new regional project, approved last week as part of the 2024–2025 IAEA technical cooperation programme, will help State Parties of the Cooperative Agreement for Arab States in Asia for Research, Development and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology (ARASIA) to take a comprehensive approach to the trafficking of cultural objects by bringing together experts across a variety of disciplines.

The trafficking of cultural artefacts is often transnational, with artefacts smuggled across country borders. This complex crime requires a coordinated approach to ensure that national treasures are recognized when they are in transit from their origin or being illicitly offered for sale. The IAEA has already worked extensively with countries in the region to build capacities in non-destructive testing and its applications in the field of cultural heritage.

"Close collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission (LAEC) has already yielded fruitful results in the fight against illicit trafficking, specifically in the application of non-destructive testing,” explained Bilal Nsouli, Director of the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission and ARASIA Chair.

“LAEC's experts played a crucial role in characterizing archaeological items seized at Beirut Airport through the utilization of X ray imaging and X ray fluorescence (XRF) technology. Confiscated objects had been cleverly concealed beneath a layer of crust to evade immediate detection, and X ray imaging proved instrumental in uncovering the genuine underlying materials, while XRF analysis enabled archaeologists to ascertain the composition of the metallic artefacts,” Nsouli added.

Scientists in ARASIA countries have, with IAEA support, also built their expertise in radiocarbon dating of archaeological materials. Valuable information about artefacts has been uncovered as a result, which has been used in the conservation and authentication of archaeological findings. Participants learned how to date archaeological artefacts, such as pottery, ceramics and bone.

The new project brings together international organizations, antiquities experts and law enforcement agencies to improve methods of identification. Using nuclear analytical techniques, scientists can identify the age and properties of objects suspected of having been trafficked or forged. The IAEA is engaged in research and development of such techniques for the authentication and provenance of cultural heritage and art objects.

A number of specialized international organizations with expertise in addressing crimes related to cultural heritage will participate in the project. The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), which works to advance justice, crime prevention, security and the rule of law in support of peace, human rights and sustainable development, is one of those organizations.

"Illicit trafficking in cultural property is a serious crime, undermining cultural heritage and contributing to transnational organized crime and terrorism.  In preserving our global cultural heritage, the role of non-destructive testing is a linchpin in the battle against the illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts. Such techniques can provide critical evidence to advance criminal investigations and prosecutions of trafficking, as well as illicit trade and forgeries.  UNICRI is proud to partner with the IAEA to address the urgent threat of illicit trafficking in cultural property," said Antonia De Meo, Director of UNICRI.

Through its knowledge centre ‘Security Improvements through Research, Technology and Innovation’ (SIRIO) and other programmes, UNICRI works to identify security risks and innovative solutions using cutting-edge technologies, including non-destructive testing.

“The special angle of this project aims to make a novel meaningful connection between science and law enforcement agencies, thus facilitating better response to possible illicit trafficking of valuable cultural heritage artefacts, through effective application of nuclear techniques,” said Jane Gerardo Abaya, Director of the IAEA Technical Cooperation Department’s Division for Asia and the Pacific at the project’s first working group meeting.

The Science

Non-destructive testing is used to examine the structures of objects without causing harm to their physical integrity. This can be done through several different radiation methods, including X rays and gamma ray radiation. Elemental and molecular information can be gained using methods such as neutron activation analysis, X ray fluorescence analysis or ion beam methods. Through these techniques, radiation can make both surface and hidden layers of an object more apparent to the human eye, and also identify its chemical composition, which is the basis for authentication and provenance.

Radiocarbon dating is another method used in classifying cultural heritage objects. By examining the amount of carbon-14 present using accelerator mass spectrometry, scientists can determine the object’s age. The IAEA offers an e-learning course on radiocarbon dating for both nuclear and heritage scientists.


Last update: 22 Dec 2023

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