Light at the Museum

Synchrotron-based large-area x-ray fluorescence (SR-XRF) and diffraction (SR-XRD) mapping has uncovered unexpected trace elements in ancient manuscript fragments. Louisa Smieska (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Ruth Mullett (Cornell University) talk us through the process of analysis and the significance of their discovery. And give us a taste of how they navigate this complex interdisciplinary field.

August 2017

How did you come to study this particular manuscript?

Louisa Smieska: When I was a postdoc at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) last year, my supervisor Arthur Woll and I organized a workshop on applications of scanning x-ray fluorescence for the study of cultural heritage materials. Laurent Ferri, curator of pre-1800 materials in the Cornell Library Rare and Manuscript Collection, attended the workshop and suggested that we look into the group of fragments that Ruth was cataloguing. Happily, Ruth and I already knew each other from a course we’d taken at the Johnson Museum on campus...

Ruth Mullett: Our initial goal was to learn more about these fragments by looking at trends in pigment and color use. Initially, we were hoping to uncover how many of our pages used lapis lazuli – a blue pigment.