[ASC-media] History rots away without synchrotron light

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Tue Jul 31 03:18:48 CEST 2007

Canberra scientists to stop iron gall inks from eating our national

Tuesday 31 July 2007

University of Canberra researcher Alana Lee is using Australia's new
synchrotron to help in the conservation of historical documents at the
National Archives of Australia. Documents such as Queen Victoria's
Commission of Assent to Australia's Constitution are potentially at

Her work may also lead to improved police forensic investigation of

It's part of a program that's used synchrotrons around the world to
study the conservation of Australia's heritage - from bark paintings, to
historical cars and aircraft, to motion picture film stock. 

The Australian Synchrotron's infra-red beamline combined with a
spectrometer-which detects how different materials absorb and reflect
the radiation-allows Lee to look at the composition of ink and parchment
used in official documents during the 19th century and assess how it has
changed over time.

"The ink they used is known as iron gall ink," she says. "It is
essentially a combination of iron sulphate and tannins which they
originally obtained from wasp galls on trees. The problem is that the
mixture can be quite acidic and corrosive. It eats into the parchment or
paper support, which begins to deteriorate." 

Lee hopes that unravelling the chemical changes which take place in ink
and parchment over time will allow the development of treatments to halt
deterioration and conserve important documents. Further, the techniques
she uses may well be useful for precise analysis and comparison of
documents important to criminal investigations.

The $220-million Australian Synchrotron, to be officially launched on
Tuesday 31 July at 10.30 am, has made Lee's study possible in two ways.
"Access is definitely a huge factor. It would have been much harder to
get the funding to go overseas."

But even if she had been able to travel to another synchrotron, it is
unlikely it would have been as useful, says her supervisor, Prof Dudley
Creagh, the director of Cultural Heritage Research at the University of
Canberra, who designed the beamline for the Australian Synchrotron. "The
infra-red beamline is comparatively new technology, only at a few
synchrotrons throughout the world. It's very useful for looking at the
way molecular structures change."

And that makes it important to Creagh who is involved in a series of
synchrotron-based projects aimed at conserving Australia's history and
cultural heritage. They include studies of the deterioration of all
types of paints and surface coatings-from those used in Aboriginal
artefacts and artworks to those used to "dope" wooden aircraft-and also
of the degradation of motion picture film stock. "Much of the social
history of the 20th century is held on motion picture film. But it is
very complicated material to conserve," he says.

"The Australian Synchrotron is a terrific step forward. It makes
possible a whole host of experiments I would like to try, things that in
the past I haven't been able to imagine doing."

The Australian Synchrotron opens today in Melbourne: a $220 million
national scientific instrument delivered on budget, and on time. Lee is
one of hundreds of scientists who will use the synchrotron over the next

For further information, contact Alana Lee, University of Canberra, tel:
(02) 6201 2121, mob: 0419 869 824, alana.lee at canberra.edu.au
<mailto:alana.lee at canberra.edu.au> 

Or Stefanie Pearce, Communications Manager, Australian Synchrotron, tel:
(03) 9655 6676, mob: 0414 891 416, stefanie.pearce at iird.vic.gov.au
<mailto:stefanie.pearce at iird.vic.gov.au> , 


Queen Victoria's Commission of Assent is viewable online at


Media contacts 

*         Australian Synchrotron, Stefanie Pearce,  +61 (03) 9655 6676,
stefanie.pearce at iird.vic.gov.au

*         Science in Public: Niall Byrne, +61 (417) 131 977,
niall at scienceinpublic.com.au 

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