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PHYSICS MATTERS: Physics Matters in (Bio)archaeology: Metals, human health and beyond by Prof. Kirsi Lorentz

By Christine Marie-Therese Darve posted 02-10-2022 17:46


Join us Thursday, February 24 at 4 pm CET (10 am ET), to learn more about (bio)archaeology!

Prof. Kirsi Lorentz will tell us more, LIVE from Cyprus!



Health is a critical factor for individuals, societies, and economies to thrive. Human metal exposure is topical today and has affected humanity since the first exploitation of metals, at the core of our civilization. This presentation highlights how physics matters in the study of this topic, specifically through the use of synchrotron light, X-ray Fluorescence (SR-XRF), and X-ray absorption fine structure (XAFS) in particular, used to explore not only the presence but crucially in the context of human health, the speciation of heavy metals in ancient human tissues, including bone, dental tissues, hair, and skin. Metals such as lead (Pb), arsenic (As), and copper (Cu), were mined, manufactured, and used at ancient archaeological sites, enabling technological advances. Cultural aesthetics led to the use of heavy metals in pigments decorating artifacts, and in cosmetics for enhancing personal appearance. In my first case study, the ID21 scanning X-ray microscope optimized for 2D μXRF (elemental maps) was used at the ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility) to obtain detailed elemental maps, including Cu, in ancient human hair sections. Only a handful of studies using synchrotron radiation enabled approaches to ancient human hair have been undertaken to date, few studies explore metal element distribution within ancient hair and none Cu in particular. Key archaeological questions, such as effects of intensive metal and craftwork on human health, can be investigated using synchrotron radiation micro X-Ray Fluorescence (SR-μXRF) in exploring biogenic versus diagenetic/environmental uptake of metals, and copper in particular, in ancient human hair. Through the second case study within this talk, I showcase the use of extended X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) to explore heavy metal speciation (Pb) in ancient human tissues in the context of exploring past human health in ancient Iran, using the SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) XAFS/XRF beamline (results of the first official user beamtime at SESAME). Metals allowed humanity to become what it is today, but not without a cost. Synchrotron light enables us to explore human health in the deep past, as well as in the present.


Kirsi Lorentz received her PhD from the University of Cambridge (Trinity College) in 2004, with a focus on human bioarchaeology. Prior to joining the Cyprus Institute (Cyl, and its Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center (STARC) she was the Director of the Wolfson Bioarchaeology Laboratory and tenured Faculty at Newcastle University. Her current research focuses on synchrotron radiation-enabled bioarchaeology, as well as other scientific and technological means to approach key questions regarding the human past through archaeological human tissues, ranging from bone and teeth to hair and skin remains. She currently leads analyses on human remains from the wider Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (EMME) region and beyond, including Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Her particular research interests include human metal exposure in the past, through a focus on ancient human tissue microstructures, using synchrotron radiation techniques. She currently leads two large externally funded projects, one on infrastructure ( ), and one integrated project ( ) with academic, industrial and governmental partners. She is a member of the Cyprus Government’s Delegation to the SESAME Council. Additionally, she serves as the Vice-Chair of the Steering Committee of the EU H2020 project BEATS ( ) building a tomography beamline at SESAME Synchrotron, and as the Chair of the LAAAMP Light Source Usage and Strategic Plan Committee for the Middle East. She led the first official user group at the newly opened SESAME Synchrotron.