What happens when you put a group of chemistry students and humanities students together and set them loose on some ancient cultural artifacts armed with a synchrotron? We are going to find out!

Okay, we aren’t exactly going to set these students loose. Tracene Harvey of CMRS and the Museum of Antiquities, Tom Ellis of the Department of Chemistry, and Tracy Walker, Education Programs Lead at the Canadian Light Source will be instructing and guiding, but this really is imagined as a joint-exploration project, certainly the first of its kind in Canada, and perhaps even unique in North America. (If anyone else has attempted such a course, we would love to hear about it!)

CMRS/CHEM 398 Using Big Science for the Study of Material Culture examines the possibilities of applying one tool of “Big Science”–the synchrotron at the Canadian Light Source (CLS)–to the study of cultural heritage objects of the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance periods. In this seminar course, students will learn about the technology and methods of spectroscopy for the study of the chemical and material composition and properties of such objects as medieval manuscripts and ancient glass, pottery, and coins. They will also consider the implications for the results of such research for the study, preservation, and assessment of these objects and also for our understanding of the cultures that produced them. Students will explore the scientific and scholarly literature and then select a material object or objects from one of our university collections (The Museum of Antiquities or the Murray Library Special Collections) and a research problem as the class project. The class will then develop a research plan, use one of the CLS’s synchrotron beamlines to for spectroscopic analysis of the object, and then interpret and write-up the results.

And what to we hope to accomplish? The overall objective of this course is to connect students with scientific technology and methods that can be applied to humanities-based research in the area of material culture. To this end, students will gain knowledge and experience in scientific research applications in material culture through the use of the Canadian Light Source. Throughout their course work, students will have the opportunity to learn from and consult with science and humanities experts who have used scientific applications in material culture based research. By exploring the current state of synchrotron-based scientific research methods on material culture objects, students will learn how to formulate scientific questions surrounding material culture objects, perform experiments at the Canadian Light Source on selected cultural heritage objects from our university collections in order to find answers to those questions, and then interpret these findings within the larger archaeological and historical contexts to which these objects belong. Once the experiments have been performed, students will then have the opportunity interpret and present their research in the form of oral presentations, conference posters and research papers. Upon completion of the course, the students will have a significant understanding of the use of scientific technology and research in the humanities and will have the ability and confidence to work in a team environment to apply this knowledge and research in their future academic endeavors as desired. A particularly innovative outcome of this course is to have students gain an appreciation for the similarities and differences of research methods, cultures and epistemologies across disciplines.

If you would like to know more about this course, contact the director of CMRS, Brent Nelson, for advising.