DESI-MS: analysing ancient proteins from artefacts

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Chemistry


Organic residues sorbed to archaeological artefacts provide a valuable source of information applicable to different aspects of ancient life. For example, analysis of lipids from ceramics dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age is changing our perception of the origins of dairying. Milk contains proteins, notably alpha-casein, that are readily absorbed onto ceramics and which although less robust, are more specific than lipids in terms of the animal from which they originate. In our previous work we have used destructive sampling of the artefact and immunological detection, which has enabled us to identify the species that was milked. Milk proteins are doubly interesting, because evidence of their persistence over time has relevance to claims for the detection of ancient proteins on both ceramics and stone tools. We are increasingly using analytical science, especially methods based on the instrumental technique of mass spectrometry, as these are able not only to identify proteins, but give insights into this protein preservation. Consequently when a new analytical technique called desorption electrospray ionisation mass spectrometry (DESI-MS) was invented two years ago, we saw obvious application to archaeology. The method makes it possible to analyse compounds directly from the surface of materials as diverse as vegetables or pieces of fruit, bricks, and wood, without any sample preparation. We therefore designed and built a DESI interface for one of our mass spectrometers and showed that it was possible to use it to detect and analyse small pieces of protein on a Perspex surface. We propose to improve the design of our DESI-MS so that it is both easier to use and accepts typical archaeological samples. We will then analyse both experimental samples that were prepared by boiling and storing unpasteurized cow's milk in unglazed ceramic pots and buried in the ground for 1, 2, 4 and 8 years, as well as broken samples of pottery from Gujarat (India) used for many years to prepare milk and then recovered from a refuse heap. If we can detect casein on these increasingly degraded samples using DESI-MS, we will finally test the analyser on archaeological pottery from a range of sites and periods from Neolithic to Iron Age.
Description A DESI-MS method for analysis of biomolecules under ambient conditions
Exploitation Route Other scientists could make use of the results for similar molecules
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description As the basis of a PhD project funded by NERC and the ACTF of the RSC, to investigate the use of DESI for the analysis of lipids from archaeological artefacts.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description NERC ACTF PhD studentship
Amount £70,307 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2011 
End 09/2014
Description British Museum 
Organisation British Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Funding, homing and training PhD student, the majority of the analyses, analytical expertise and access to high end specialist instrumentation.
Collaborator Contribution Placement hosts, samples for analysis, access to complementary analytical instrumentation, relevant cultural context and background.
Impact Multidisciplinary - archaeological, cultural, historical, chemical. Outcomes thus far are posters and talks at conferences and the placement partner
Start Year 2010