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The Palaeodetectives

Talking to members of the general public

Talking to members of the general public Dane Comerford

13 October 2009

Chemists present small molecules with big messages from the past at the Royal Society 2009

Bristol Chemists revealed the secrets of ancient worlds at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2009. A display crammed with real samples and molecular models alongside display screens and real-time chemical analysis gave visitors a taste of life as a chemical palaeodetective.

Led by Professor Richard Evershed, the Organic Geochemistry Unit interprets messages preserved for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years in a variety of substances, from fossilised plants to ancient vessels. Using state-of-the-art analytical techniques, the team extracts chemical information from molecular and isotopic 'biomarkers’; fragments of molecules found in archaeological artefacts and geological deposits.

An incredible amount of detail has been pieced together from samples ranging from parts of the Mary Rose, to Egyptian mummies, to Neolithic pottery sherds. Professor Evershed said: "Identifying the milking of animals based on fat residues in Neolithic pottery dating back nearly 9,000 years shows what can be achieved through these molecular and isotopic approaches. We wanted to communicate to visitors to the exhibition the impressive range of scenarios and levels of detail our techniques can be used to unravel."

The team presented eight mysteries at the Exhibition that they have solved by identifying the biomarkers in samples sent to them from around the globe. The public was invited to see original samples and molecular models of key biomarkers on the archaeological or geological reference pillars, which formed part of the exhibit. Visitors then solved cases on the basis of historical, geographical and chemical information using a touch-screen ‘Palaeodetective’ computer game.

Hundreds of visitors took part, comparing chemical evidence to solve a mystery. Fiona Gill, Research Assistant in the unit said: “Once the main principles were explained to visitors, people were willing and able to talk about our research in more complex terms, asking intriguing questions.” The game proved so popular that teachers, students and the Royal Society want it to become an online resource in the future.

Another member of the group, Phil Dunn, said: “It’s been a great experience to see the bigger picture within the Organic Geochemistry Unit. It has brought to life aspects of other people's research I'd only known a bit about before.” In the aftermath of the Exhibition, the team are still on a high, and keen to reuse – and repeat – the exhibit within the School of Chemistry and at other public festivals around the country.


Further information

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibitionis a major London-based event that illustrates the cutting edge of UK science and technology.