Sourcing of ancient artifacts has gotten a new advance.

While at the University of Sheffield in the years 1965–1972, Professor Lord Colin Renfrew developed a technique that matched stone tools made of obsidian, naturally occurring glass, to their volcanic origins based on their chemical fingerprints. It was considered one of the greatest successes in scientific archeology, matching artifacts to specific volcanoes was a significant leap forward in understanding trade, contact, and cultural change in the ancient world.

40 years later,  Dr. Ellery Frahm from Sheffield has developed the new technology to better study Mesopotamian obsidian tools.  Where it was once only possible to match an artifact to a particular volcano or lava flow, sometimes covering dozens of chemically uniform square kilometers, a new technique built on magnetic analyses allows for much greater specificity of an artifact's origin, enabling human behaviors in the past to be reconstructed with greater spatial resolution than previously possible. 

The magnetic properties of obsidian vary on the scale of meters, not kilometers, enabling researchers to match an artifact to a particular quarry at the volcano. The new technique takes advantage of that. Frahm and his collaborator, Dr. Joshua Feinberg at the University of Minnesota, like the simplicity of the approach and how widely applicable it will be. "Our magnetic tests were chosen in part for their simplicity so that most rock magnetism laboratories could take the necessary measurements and apply this new approach worldwide. We did not want to develop a technique that could only be done in one or two laboratories in the world. It was important the approach be accessible, making it as 'open source' as possible."

Development of this approach partly depended on the sheer quantities of specimens and artifacts studied, "This study involved more magnetic measurements of obsidian than all previously published studies combined," explained Frahm. "The resulting picture revealed how to identify quarries of particular importance to Mesopotamian peoples, and it helps us to piece together their cultural significance."

The proof of concept was in Syria, where there are concerns that yet another political conflict risk the state's cultural heritage as well. The cultural significance of artifacts to Syria's heritage is important to Frahm. "During my fieldwork in Syria, I identified some spectacular artefacts that should be curated and displayed to the Syrian public at the Deir ez-Zor archaeological museum.

"Unfortunately, Deir ez-Zor has been a centre of fighting since summer 2011. The last time I had an update, the museum had become a stronghold for the Syrian military, even with snipers on the roof, and it appears that when they pulled out last fall, the museum was essentially trashed. This has a doubly damaging effect on the country. Not only do many Syrians see archaeological sites and artefacts as part of their heritage, but also archaeological excavations put money into the local economy and employ local workers, helping people in rural villages make ends meet. Protecting Syrian heritage throughout this terrible conflict is an issue that needs attention from people who are in a position to help."