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Researchers at The University of Queensland have been detailing the geochemical ‘fingerprints’ of Tang, Song and Yuan dynasty pieces which allows them to trace their geographical origin, and even the kiln used for firing artefacts. They say the method will have a major impact on authenticating pieces.

Because potters used different sources of clay and refined them to different degrees and with different methods, the isotopic compositions of their ceramics vary. Such ‘fingerprints’ are unique to the specific site and time when the items were made.

By drilling a tiny hole in the base of an object to gain a sample of the raw material, the trace elements in the piece can be analysed using the facilities at the university’s Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis.

Dr Jian-xin Zhao, who is leading the research team, told ATG: “It is possible to trace an unknown ware to its place of origin provided we can establish a database comprehensive and systematic enough for important ancient kilns.”

He added that the distinctive ‘fingerprints’ of ceramics make it virtually impossible for modern forgers to copy. “You cannot forge the properties of a 700-year-old piece,” he said. “We can examine the trace elements of the sample and this allows us to rapidly and precisely determine the chemical and isotopic compositions of the item.

“Fakes may fool an archaeologist, but will not escape from a geochemist’s eyes.”

Another member of the team, art historian Baoping Li, said that this methodology would have an enormous impact on valuing and authenticating items. “A lot of modern fake pieces are of an excellent standard and are visually indistinguishable from genuine antiques,” he said.

“Some ancient items were sold for millions of dollars in the antiquity market in the past. Our techniques could help to eliminate fakes in the future.”

The chief aim of the research has been to identify the chemical origin of archaeological ceramics. It has been carried out in collaboration with the Chinese culture heritage bodies. The spin-off is the potential for effective authentication and it is hoped that additional funding will help enlarge the database of ancient production centres.

Dr Zhao, who was recently involved in the dating the Homo floresensis (nicknamed “the Hobbit”), said that scientific analysis of clay for the purposes of authentication is not new in itself, but this method is new.

He was also keen to point out that there are also other excellent authentication centres in the world such as the one at Oxford.