Investigating hydration in ancient egyptian leathers
21 Nov 2022
- Katie Burke



New research from our ISIS@MACH ITALIA collaboration has uncovered information on the hydration levels in a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts.




​Studying organic ancient artifacts such as leather, can tell us a lot about the history of the age it came from as well as different conservation techniques through the millennia. The sample will have been exposed to many outside influences which can impact on its structure and preservation, from tanning and curing processes to pollution and handling throughout history. In this ​paper researchers used a variety of neutron and laboratory experiments to investigate these effects on a collection of Egyptian leathers dated to 2700 BC – 600 AD.

The samples (containing various leather objects from sandals to parts o​f stools), were brought over to ISIS from Museo Egizio, Turin as part of our ISIS@MACH ITALIA colla​bora​tion. With some artifacts weighing less than 8 milligrams, (which is very small for neutron experimentation) the group were proud to be able to test all of their samples, for both neutron techniques used.

The first technique was inelastic neutron scattering, performed on T​OSCA​. This experiment outlines a fingerprint of the molecules contained within each sample. The second technique, complementary to the first, was deep inelastic neutron scattering using the VESUV​IO instrument​. Rather than a molecular fingerprint, this technique enables a measurement of hydrogen levels within each sample.  Using both of these techniques, they were able to compare the hydration levels of the collection to that of a highly hydrated and highly dehydrated control. This ​allowed them to calculate the hydration level of the artifacts. Interestingly, each sample gave very similar results indicating that the whole collection has a shared/similar history from the age it was created to how it was handled throughout history.

The second half of this paper focuses on surface techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, Scanning Electron Microscope and X-Ray Fluorescence​​. These were available via the ISIS@MACH ITALIA Unit of the University of Roma Tor Vergata and the University of Messina. All of these laboratory techniques played a role in determining how the surface of the samples may have been treated over time. For example, some of the techniques shed light on the specific tanning and curing techniques that could have been used on the leather during their creation, or even the effect that pollution may have had on the artifacts.

Neutrons are not commonly used in these types of processes at the moment, but this fun​damental study has shed light on how useful the techniques could be for future investigations.  Combining both the ISIS experiments and the laboratory techniques, will lead to improved methodology to learn about historical artifacts and how we treat them.


Further information:

Find the full research paper here:


Contact: Burke, Katie (STFC,RAL,ISIS)