Case study: ISIS shoots down pistol theory

Flintlock pistols

These flintlock pistols are not an exact pair, but their material composition is identical and unusual, suggesting they were made around the same time.
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ISIS helps archeologists understand the origins of important relics.

  • Neutrons can be used to determine the structure of materials at an atomic level.
  • Because neutrons are non destructive, they are very useful for examining precious historic artifacts
  • ISIS recently helped to uncover the origins of antique dueling pistols presented to the 4th US President, James Madison.

Archeological scientists use beams of neutrons to see deep into the structure of materials. Because neutrons are non destructive, scientists are able to find out how and when historic artifacts were made without damaging them. Neutron scattering is increasingly useful to confirm or challenge the origin of museum pieces.

ISIS recently helped uncover the origins of two ornate dueling pistols presented to the 4th US President, James Madison, by the Argentine ruler General Ignacio Alvarez. The weapons were thought to have been forged from meteoric iron from the Campo del Cielo crater in South America.

The pistols, which are housed in the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Washington, were sent to ISIS to examine how they were made. Researcher Dr Evelyne Godfrey used neutrons to see the atomic structure of the pistols. When she compared them to a genuine fragment of the meteorite, she discovered they were not of the same material.

“They were completely different,” Dr Godfrey says. “There were differences in microstructures, there were differences in carbon content and there were differences in chemical composition. We are now certain the pistols weren't made from meteoritic iron."

The findings have provided definitive answers to questions about the pistols as well opening up new lines of enquiry.

E.G. Godfrey

Research date: January 2007

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