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Elucidation structurale et marqueurs moléculaires : une approche originale pour la caractérisation de matériaux organiques antiques – ARCHEOMOLECULE

Submission summary

Within the framework of this project, we propose to develope molecular archaeology as a new research area. The aim is to study the precise molecular and isotopic composition of organic remains fixed on archaeological items such as adhesives, caulking, embalming material, perfumes, etc. Beyond the identification of the different natural products present in the mixtures, this approach gives information on the history of the samples. For instance, it is likely to provide valuable data on the technologies of the past, commercial exchanges, historical events, etc. The molecular identification of diagnostic biological lipids and of their alteration products (usually unidentified) will also help us to understand transformations of original materials due to manufacturing or ageing. The interdisciplinarity of this programme goes without saying and the collaborations are large. Molecular archaeology is a research field barely developed in France, unlike other European countries. The analytical approach using detailed structural characterisation of molecular markers is original and very complementary to the approaches usually used in other national laboratories. The request for such studies from curators, archaeologists or restorers is constantly increasing. The chemical approach uses molecular markers (called biomarkers) which are specific of various classes of natural products and numerous methods of separation and characterisation really suited to the study of complex organic mixtures, such as HPLC, gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS-MS) or high performance liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS-MS), identification by NMR or synthesis. Within the framework of a collaboration with the Egyptian Antiquities Department of the Louvre Museum, we will haveaccess to an exceptional set of containers from Deir el-Médineh ('Haute-Egypte', King's Valley), dating from the 18th dynasty. One richness of this collection is the fact that the main jars are still full and covered. While the study of ceramics is underway (L. Bavay, Université Libre de Bruxelles), their contents were never investigated et will constitute the aim of this study. As nothing is known about the nature of the natural substances present, the results will be necessarily original. Nowadays, Deir el-Médineh is an archaeological site with an important activity (IFAO) and there are still many questions without answers. The determination of these products will have an important impact on the knowledge of the funerary ritual, on the nature of the populations (ordinary people, artisan, health people,etc). Moreover, this collection of more than sixty jars constitutes a precious collection for the study of alteration processes, samples being more or less degraded. Animal fats are prominent among the natural substances usually identified in this archaeometric context, which is consistent with their wide range of potential uses. Numerous are the techniques for their identification in complex antique mixtures. However, the biological origin of the fat is difficult to determine. We want to develop here a direct analyses technique for the triacylglycerols by LC-MS-MS, method tested during a previous study on organic residue stuck on the surface of canopic jars of Ramsesses II. The informations which will be obtained will complete the data of the molecular and isotopic (13C/12C) analyses from the fatty acids and will allow to establish with more precision the origin of the fats. In order to build up a data base, we will study among other samples a collection of pure fats from the Centre de Recherche sur les Mammifères Marins (La Rochelle) and some archaeological samples where animal fat is in different proportions (e.g. organic residue from the canopic jars of Ramesses II and embalming material from Padiimenipet mummy – Louvre Museum - , caulking agents on roman boats from Parking Saint Georges – Lyon). In the past, vegetal resins, pitches and tars had numerous uses and their trade commercial was extensive. The study of a large available antique sample group would allow both to establish the origin of the vegetal product and to better understand the molecular changes induced by anthropologic handling or alteration processes. This study will require comparison at a molecular level of archaeological materials with various actual natural substances and alteration simulation experiments are planed (important point for restorers). Our interest will be particularly devoted to two vegetal families: Dipterocarpacea and conifer products which present distinct molecular fingerprints. As this project is highly interdisciplinary, the collaborations with Museums and other researchers in the patrimony field, and with other laboratories (mineral analyses, pollen analyses) will be numerous.

Project coordination

Armelle CHARRIE (Organisme de recherche)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Help of the ANR 149,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 36 Months

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