Iron isotopes as a potential tool for ancient iron metals tracing

Publication date: December 2016Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 76
Author(s): Jean Milot, Franck Poitrasson, Sandrine Baron, Marie-Pierre Coustures
Provenance studies of iron artefacts have become an important topic in archaeology to better understand the socio-economic organization of ancient societies. Elemental and isotopic tracing methods used so far for iron metal provenance studies showed some limitations, and the development of new additional tracers are needed. Since the last decade, the rise of cutting edge analytical techniques allows for the development of new isotopic tools for this purpose. The present study explores for the first time the use of iron isotopes analyses as a potential method for ancient iron metal tracing. Ore, slag and metal samples from two experimental reconstitutions of iron ore reduction by bloomery process were collected. Their Fe isotope compositions were measured by Multi Collector – Inductively Coupled Plasma – Mass Spectrometry (MC-ICP-MS) to assess the possible impact of smelting on the Fe isotope composition of the metal produced. Our results show that the iron isotope compositions of the slag and metal are for 8 out of 9 samples analyzed undistinguishable from that of the starting ores. This suggests that overall, no significant Fe isotope fractionation occurs along the chaîne opératoire of iron bars production, even if slight isotopic differences might be found in blooms before refinement. This fact, combined with the natural isotopic variability of iron ores, as reported in the literature, may allow the use of Fe isotopes as a relevant tracer for archaeological iron metals. This new tracing approach offers many perspectives for provenance studies. The combination of elemental and Fe isotope analyses should thus be useful to validate origin hypotheses of ancient iron artefacts.