The technological versus methodological revolution of portable XRF in archaeology

Ellery Frahm, Roger C.P. Doonan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

115 Scopus citations


Portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) instruments have gained considerable attention within the archaeological community. Few other recent instrumental developments have generated such debate. Much of this debate, which is dominated by scepticism over analytical performance, has occurred in informal settings. Rather than judge the use of pXRF based on unpublished work and conference banter, we conducted an extensive literature review of peer-reviewed research that used this technology. Our focus is developing an understanding of how, where, and why pXRF is being used in archaeology. What interests us most are research designs into which only pXRF could be integrated and the new research approaches these instruments may facilitate. Trends that emerged from the literature are surprising. For example, only 43% of the archaeological "pXRF" papers actually involve handheld instruments. In addition, more than four-fifths of handheld pXRF in archaeology is apparently conducted in laboratory contexts. Only 3% has been conducted in a fieldhouse or on-site laboratory, and 15% at an excavation, on a survey, or inside a historic structure. Here we argue that, while the technical capability to analyse archaeological materials using portable instruments may exist, it is not necessarily true the methodological and theoretical frameworks are in place to allow such activities to be archaeologically successful and significant. Because handheld pXRF is uniquely suited to in situ analysis, we expect the first changes in methodological and theoretical approaches will involve space, context, and related frameworks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1425-1434
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Archaeological method and theory
  • Context of practice
  • Handheld Portable
  • Portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF)
  • Research Design
  • X-ray fluorescence (HHpXrf)


Dive into the research topics of 'The technological versus methodological revolution of portable XRF in archaeology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this