Sunday, 15 October 2017


     As commercial archaeologists continue their endeavours Students and Academics will be returning to the fold. Hopefully all with eager anticipation. Others, Amateurs and Hobbyists alike, will continue to read books and watch documentaries on what, I hope, is their favourite subject. As for me? Well, this time I need your help........sort of.

     Allow me to explain. Although entering my twilight years I will, next week, return to University for my final year, some 35 years later than is "usual". Interesting modules, such as "Reconstructing Past Environments" are on the horizon. Much of my time, however, will be dedicated to my dissertation. A short introduction is included below, together with some supporting publications. So, you might be asking, of what concern is that to you, who kindly takes the time to read this blog?

     University, and inter-institution collaboration, combined with on line publications provide a plethora of material and despite complex search engines it is physically impossible to cover everything. Especially with the time available. So here is the rub. I have spent many hours (days and weeks!) building a useful reference library but am sure, in my own mind, that there will be stuff out there that I have missed. 

     I am, quite simply, staggered that this blog has already amassed over 6000 monthly readers in the short time that I have been writing regularly. Considering my last article, it would be rather remiss of me not to, at least try, to enlist you. So if any of you are aware of any publications, peer reviewed if possible, pertaining to the use of Field Portable XRF (sometimes also called Hand Held) on human remains then I would be very grateful if you could let me know...either email or comments. WD or ED  XRF as both wil be considered, and used, in the study. Era also unimportant as this goes to methodology rather than chronology.

     The project results will be published online, probably June 2018, and any assistance duly acknowledged.


Cinnabar (HgS) is a naturally occurring source of mercury. Generally of volcanic or hydrothermal origin it is found worldwide (Goldwater 1972) and has been mined since prehistory, the earliest recorded use being from the Twin River deposits in Zambia which have been dated stratigraphically to c400kya (Barham 2002). Of the eighteen known isotopes of mercury seven are stable and enable the provenance of the mercury to be ascertained (Hintelmann and Lu 2003), studies which enhance our understanding of procurement and distribution networks in the past (Monna et al. 2014).

The toxicity of mercury, and cinnabar, has been known since the time of the Romans (Pliny 1991) where it was variously known as Hydrargyrum, Minium or “Dragon’s blood” (Trinquier 2013). It should not be confused with the red pigment Cinnabaris, a vegetal product, sourced from the tree of the same name.

It was not until the recognition of the role of mercury toxicity, and methyl mercury, in Minamata disease that significant research commenced (D'Itri and D'Itri 1977; Eto et al. 2010). The persistent use of cinnabar in traditional medicines has led to an effort to examine the toxicological pathways (TP) and pathological effects of HgS, most notably in China where use of it is prevalent in traditional medicine (Ho et al. 2003; Zhou et al. 2011; Wang et al. 2013; Wang et al. 2015). However, apart from human remains from Portugal (Emslie et al. 2015) and Denmark (Rasmussen et al. 2008; Rasmussen et al. 2013), very little study has been made of cinnabar exposure in archaeological contexts.

A review of existing literature indicates widespread cultural use of cinnabar in the past. From the Royal Tombs of Ur, to the Maya burials, middle eastern painted skulls, the Trajan Column, Egyptian and Peruvian mummies and aboriginal rock art, cinnabar has been widely used both chronologically and geographically.

Persistent use of cinnabar can be recognised by scientific analysis of human remains. Such analyses are often both expensive and destructive. This project proposes the application of existing technology (Field Portable Energy Diffusion X-Ray Fluorescence FP-EDXRF), which has been shown to be effective on differing archaeological materials (O et al. 1999; Simsek et al. 2015; Fostiridou et al. 2016; Brent et al. 2017), but not yet human remains, (and associated contexts) both in the field and retrospectively.  Data collected using FP-EDXRF will provide both a triage prior to further analysis and base information relating to the procurement, distribution and use of cinnabar in prehistory."

Further Reading

Barham, L. (2002) Systematic Pigment Use in the Middle Pleistocene of South‐Central Africa. Current Anthropology 43 (1), 181-190.
Brent, R. N., Wines, H., Luther, J., Irving, N., Collins, J. and Drake, B. L. (2017) Validation of handheld X-ray fluorescence for in situ measurement of mercury in soils. Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering 5 (1), 768-776.
D'Itri, P. A. and D'Itri, F. M. (1977) Mercury contamination: a human tragedy. New York Wiley.
Emslie, S. D., Brasso, R., Patterson, W. P., Carlos Valera, A., McKenzie, A., Maria Silva, A., Gleason, J. D. and Blum, J. D. (2015) Chronic mercury exposure in Late Neolithic/Chalcolithic populations in Portugal from the cultural use of cinnabar. Scientific reports 5, 14679.
Eto, K., Marumoto, M. and Takeya, M. (2010) The pathology of methylmercury poisoning (Minamata disease). Neuropathology 30 (5), 471.
Fostiridou, A., Karapanagiotis, I., Vivdenko, S., Lampakis, D., Mantzouris, D., Achilara, L. and Manoudis, P. (2016) Identification of Pigments in Hellenistic and Roman Funeral Figurines. Archaeometry 58 (3), 453-464.
Goldwater, L. J. (1972) Mercury; a history of quicksilver. Baltimore, York Press.
Hintelmann, H. and Lu, S. (2003) High precision isotope ratio measurements of mercury isotopes in cinnabar ores using multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Analyst 128 (6), 635-639.
Ho, B. S. J., Lin, J.-L., Huang, C.-C., Tsai, Y.-H. and Lin, M.-C. (2003) Mercury Vapor Inhalation from Chinese Red (Cinnabar). Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology 41 (1), 75-78.
Monna, F., Camizuli, E., Nedjai, R., Cattin, F., Petit, C., Guillaumet, J. P., Jouffroy-Bapicot, I., Bohard, B., Chateau, C. and Alibert, P. (2014) Tracking archaeological and historical mines using mineral prospectivity mapping. Journal of Archaeological Science 49, 57-69.
O, W.-T., P.J, P. and P.C, W. (1999) Field-Portable Non-Destructive Analysis of Lithic Archaeological Samples by X-Ray Fluorescence Instrumentation using a Mercury Iodide Detector: Comparison with Wavelength-Dispersive XRF and a Case Study in British Stone Axe Provenancing. Journal of Archaeological Science 26 (2), 215-237.
Pliny, The Elder (1991) Naturalis Historiae [Natural history].Translator Healey, J. Penguin Classics, London.
Rasmussen, K. L., Boldsen, J. L., Kristensen, H. K., Skytte, L., Hansen, K. L., Mølholm, L., Grootes, P. M., Nadeau, M.-J. and Flöche Eriksen, K. M. (2008) Mercury levels in Danish Medieval human bones. Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (8), 2295-2306.
Rasmussen, K. L., Skytte, L., Ramseyer, N. and Boldsen, J. L. (2013) Mercury in soil surrounding medieval human skeletons. Heritage Science 1 (1), 16-16.
Simsek, G., Colomban, P., Casadio, F., Bellot‐Gurlet, L., Zelleke, G., Faber, K. T., Milande, V., Tilliard, L. and Lloyd, I. (2015) On‐Site Identification of Early Böttger Red Stoneware Using Portable XRF/Raman Instruments: 2, Glaze & Gilding Analysis. Journal of the American Ceramic Society 98 (10), 3006-3013.
Trinquier, J. (2013) Cinnabaris et « sang-dragon » : le « cinabre » des Anciens entre minéral, végétal et animal. Revue archéologique 56 (2), 305-346.
Wang, Q., Yang, X., Zhang, B., Yang, X. and Wang, K. (2013) Cinnabar is Different from Mercuric Chloride in Mercury Absorption and Influence on the Brain Serotonin Level. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology 112 (6), 412-417.
Wang, Y., Wang, D., Wu, J., Wang, B., Wang, L., Gao, X., Huang, H. and Ma, H. (2015) Cinnabar Induces Renal Inflammation and Fibrogenesis in Rats. BioMed Research International 2015, 1-10.
Zhou, X., Wang, L., Wang, Q., Sun, X., Yang, X., Yang, X. and Chen, C. (2011) Cinnabar is not converted into methylmercury by human intestinal bacteria. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 135 (1), 110-115.