A review of infrared spectroscopy in microarchaeology: Methods, applications, and recent trends

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Infrared (IR) spectroscopy has emerged as one of the most powerful analytical tools available to archaeologists. It has been used to document site formation processes and understand the preservation of organic remains within sites; to investigate pyrotechnology including control of fire, heat treatment of stone, and plaster manufacture; to assess the preservation of charcoal and bone prior to dating or isotope analyses; and, to identify unknown substances inside containers or on artifact surfaces such as stone tools. Most importantly, IR spectroscopy has become an essential tool in the field of microarchaeology, the analysis of the portion of the archaeological record which cannot be seen with the naked eye, yet which contains a wealth of data to address the research areas listed above. IR spectroscopy, long a workhorse of analytical chemistry, is particularly suited to archaeology because it is applicable to many kinds of materials - organic as well as inorganic - and can therefore be used to address a wide range of questions. Sample preparation is rapid and, since minute quantities of a substance are necessary, the technique is ‘microdestructive’. It can also be performed on-site, yielding results in real time that help guide excavation and sampling strategies. The purpose of this review is to detail the basic principles and instrumentation of IR spectroscopy as it has been applied in microarchaeology and related fields of research. The discussion centers on major archaeological applications to date, methodological issues, and recent trends. A special focus is placed on new reflectance techniques.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)806-823
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
StatePublished - Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Many thanks to Danielle MacDonald, Adrian Evans, and James Stemp for inviting me to the SAA Symposium ‘Exploring the Microscale’ in 2016. Thanks also to the US-Israel Educational Foundation for a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship, to the University of Minnesota Sabbatical Supplement program, and especially to the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, for the opportunity to spend a wonderful, intellectually enriching sabbatical at the Kimmel Center in 2016–17. This paper benefited from many discussions with colleagues at the Kimmel, including especially Steve Weiner, Elisabetta Boaretto, Lior Regev, and Michael Toffolo. It was also improved by the comments and suggestions from three anonymous reviewers. Many thanks to Samantha Porter and Gil Tostevin for help with the figures.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • ATR
  • Diagenesis
  • FTIR
  • Fire
  • Microarchaeology
  • Micromorphology
  • Pyrotechnology
  • Reflectance infrared spectroscopy


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