New form of carbon dating pioneered at Norton Priory

Funding will allow museum to develop device commercially
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Norton Priory Museum and Gardens in Cheshire and the University of Liverpool are pioneering a carbon dating process that will allow the museum to develop income from its commercial use from 2016.

A £96,000 investment from Arts Council England’s resilience fund, awarded last month, will help the team develop the quadruple mass spectrometer (QMS) device.

Frank Hargrave, the director of Norton Priory, said that, if successful, the technique could revoluntionise field digs by allowing dating information to be established onsite in a few days.

“Carbon dating is expensive and time consuming, and some units actually send samples abroad because it’s cheaper,” Hargrave said. “By the time this information is obtained the dig is over and all it does is confirm what you already know or tell you you’re on the wrong road.

“This will allow archaeologists to get dating information onsite within days of sampling, allowing for its application during the dig.”

Scientists from the University of Liverpool will use already dated medieval and post-medieval animal bone samples excavated from Norton Priory to develop the prototype technology. In 12 months, it will have developed a device that the museum will purchase and use to develop new income streams.

Hargrave said that a business plan is still being developed for the new technology. As part of its Heritage Lottery Fund capital redevelopment, the priory is also creating a lab space that could be used to date samples from other sites.

It is still unclear how accurate the QMS device will be.

Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in electrical engineering at Liverpool University, who is leading the project, said: “It will be a challenge to develop a portable instrument to achieve the required performance, but thanks to this [resilience] funding we are in a strong position to make a real attempt.”



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