What is X-ray Fluorescence?

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) is a non-destructive technique that uses low-level radiation to excite elements at known energy frequencies. It reveals an object’s elemental fingerprint, as unique as our own but on a much smaller scale! Researchers can use XRF in numerous contexts as it works on almost anything— from determining the geological origin of rocks or clays, to the composition of ceramic glazes, or the nature of ancient resource use. 


Portable XRF technology is revolutionizing the way scientists and descendent communities - the people who created these objects - work together and care for material culture. XRF analysis is quick, inexpensive, non-destructive, and reliable. Results can be viewed live time, allowing opportunities to engage in reciprocal research. For example, when archaeologists use a portable XRF in the field or community, they eliminate the need for removing objects from their home territories. This promotes accessiblity of archaeological science to descendent communities. 


Visual identification of obsidian can be misleading, as many sources of this material appear similar. XRF on obsidian can help determine where this natural glass came from, especially when there is little to no associated documentation. For example, the Eccentric is from an obsidian source in south central Mexico called Pachuca. 

Elemental concentrations in Pachuca obsidian
Spectral overlay comparing elemental concentrations in Pachuca and El Chayal

In other cases, XRF helps archaeologists determine the nature and extent of ancient trade. For example, analysis shows the blades excavated from Kaminaljuyu are from two sources, El Chayal (the Mayan word for obsidian) in southern Guatemala and Pachuca. This evidence demonstrates that the Maya living at Kaminaljuyu were engaged in regional trade of obsidian and many other materials between the Pacific Ocean, the interior mountains and lowlands.

© 2016 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Origional content by Dr. Rudy Reimer and Robyn Ewing.
Adapted for web by Denee Renouf.
Photographs courtesy of Kristen McLaughlin.