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Techniques & Tools Liquid Chromatography, Gas Chromatography, Spectroscopy

On the Dating Scene

I have been interested in both science and history since childhood, and though I ended up specializing in science, I remained fascinated by the past. During the final year of my integrated chemistry degree at Oxford University, I was offered a one-off opportunity to work in an archaeology research lab, studying nitrogen isotopes to learn about the diet of Paleolithic humans. Within weeks, I knew it was exactly the type of research I wanted to do; being able to use chemistry to understand our past was a dream come true. I went on to a PhD project that focused on amino acid racemization (also known as amino acid dating) in fossilized shells at Newcastle University. I have been working in amino acid racemization of fossilized materials ever since.

Site Unseen?

Our analysis of bone breakdown at the Star Carr Mesolithic archaeological site in Yorkshire, UK, revealed that sometimes we must act fast to preserve ancient artifacts.

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  1. KEH Penkman et al., “Closed-system behavior of the intra-crystalline fraction of amino acids in mollusc shells”, Quaternary Geochronology, 3, 2–25 (2008).
  2. RC Preece, KEH Penkman, “New faunal analyses and amino acid dating of the Lower Palaeolithic site at East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk”, Proc Geol Assoc 116, 363–377 (2005).
  3. KEH Penkman et al., “A chronological framework for the British Quaternary based on Bithynia opercula”, Nature, 476, 446–449 (2011).
  4. B Demarchi et al., “Protein sequences bound to mineral surfaces persist into deep time”, eLife, 5:e17092 (2016).
  5. K High et al., “Lessons from Star Carr on the vulnerability of organic archaeological remains to environmental change”, PNAS, 113, 12957–12962 (2016).

About the Author

Kirsty Penkman

Kirsty Penkman combines analytical science, archaeology, earth science, and oceanography to delve into the history of our planet.

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