“Nuclear technologies play a central role in the protection and preservation of Malta’s cultural heritage”


Nuclear technologies play a central role in the protection and preservation of Malta’s cultural heritage, said Matthew Grima, Director of Scientific Diagnostic Laboratories at Heritage Malta.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an agency that strives to research and promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies, has facilitated the research and purchase of several technologies for the national agency can continue their conservation and preservation efforts in a simpler and more efficient way.

The Malta Independent Sunday spoke with Grima about the use of these technologies and put Malta on the nuclear energy map in the cultural context.

Asked to speak about the IAEA’s technical cooperation program with Heritage Malta, Grima said that the work of applying nuclear and nuclear-related energy in cultural heritage is a cooperation between a number of states around the world. whole in order to see how they will preserve the national heritage.

“We have had a relationship with the IAEA for over 15 years and they now see Malta as a contributor to training others in the cultural sector. There are regional and national projects, which include knowledge transfer and financial support, to procure systems to better preserve our national heritage. Ultimately, our national heritage is our legacy and what identifies us as a country,” Grima said.

Grima was asked how best to protect artefacts of cultural significance or value in the work carried out by Heritage Malta, to which he said science plays a central role in preservation, as do medical professionals and specialists use science to diagnose a person.

“Science can answer the crucial questions posed. Currently the hot topic is climate change, so the question is what impact does this have on cultural heritage? Heat speeds up chemical reactions, as well as the country’s humidity problem,” Grima said.

He said science can provide insight into what is happening now and is constantly fighting deterioration.

“However, while retrieving samples for the sake of preserving the object can be seen as a positive thing, it becomes counterproductive because you can’t keep doing it until there’s no object left. “, said Grima.

He added that portable systems, such as X-Ray fluorescence, facilitate research in a non-invasive way, as well as the ability to travel to large sites where samples cannot be obtained. The portable X-ray fluorescence system works with an X-ray beam that does not damage the object and houses a detector for immediate elemental recording without even having to touch the object.

“As a national agency, we must strive for excellence, so if there is technology that improves our approach to what we are currently doing, we have a legal responsibility to take advantage of it if it increases our chances. better preservation and that is what we have actually done,” added Grima.

Grima said that prior to the development of portable systems, the drawbacks and obstacles to better preservation of objects of national significance were two-fold – one being that certain materials could not be sampled without leaving a permanently visible destructive mark. , like glass, and the other being that the technology would simply not exist and the agency would have to cooperate with foreign entities, which takes more time.

“Unfortunately, there were analyzes that were not even done. These systems have accelerated the fight against spoilage,” Grima said.

The IAEA helped purchase a one-ton micro-X-ray diffractometer, an advanced system used to analyze and understand the materials, age and provenance of ancient artifacts with minimal sample requirements when the information can only be obtained by such means. Heritage Malta staff have also been trained in the use of X-ray diffraction.

Grima explained that X-ray diffraction is used on crystalline materials, such as salts, mortars, modern cement and pigments. It works with a fine beam of X-rays fired at a very small sample of an object, Grima said.

“While previous methods were not always feasible because larger quantities of samples had to be purchased, with this technology we can literally scrape off the layer of pigment with a needle and raise just one point. As long as it is visible to the naked eye, this is sufficient for analysis,” Grima said.

He said that in the event that it is necessary to take a sample from an object, then at least the most minimalist sample volume is obtained. This is considered micro-invasive.

The IAEA also collaborated with Heritage Malta to offer a radiography course, which involved a regional cooperation project for the training of individuals in radiography for civil engineering and cultural heritage.

Grima was asked to host the training course, as well as to contribute to the training with foreign experts in the field. The content was delivered to eight participants following an international call to Member States.

“Currently, there is no certification or qualification in the world that officially identifies a cultural heritage radiographer. After establishing a network with experts, the IAEA itself saw the opportunity for a training course to “introduction to launch a future first international qualification in radiography. The training course is fantastic as it puts Malta on the map,” said Grima.

When asked if Heritage Malta was currently working on a major restoration project where new nuclear technology is used, Grima said that although the technology is relatively new, which together with the financial investment of the IAEA, 750 €000 has been spent, Heritage Malta is able to support the archaeological field.

“There are a few tombs that have been studied recently and it’s this technology that’s being applied,” Grima said.

Grima said the technology is being used to initially help archaeologists perform rapid analysis of certain materials as they dig, to determine which materials need short-term storage for immediate preservation.

“This is an important aspect of preservation because, if necessary,science can contribute to the profile of a material for archaeologists and conservators to decide on short-term preservation. For example, metal can corrode completely, and x-rays help us know if metal objects contain healthy, uncorroded metal in their core, rather than being completely oxidized. Depending on their state of preservation, conservators can then proceed with their preservation in an appropriate manner,” said Grima.

Grima said Heritage Malta is also analyzing a Phoenician sarcophagus from a tomb using this technology.

When asked if he considered the investment in this type of technology a breakthrough in Malta’s efforts to preserve national heritage artefacts and objects, Grima said that rather than a breakthrough, it is a definitive respite that eliminates some of the challenges they faced before.

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