Further reading

Fossils possess hidden secrets encoded in their chemistry. Some of the brightest x-ray light sources in the world allow the imaging, analysis, and reconstruction of chemical traces from prehistoric life.

Palimpsests -8-320Dr. Roy Wogelius preparing Confucicusornis sanctus (Lower Cretaceous of China) for scanning on the beamline experimental station. Credit: P.L. Manning

In this exhibit particle physics and paleontology collide, by exploring what happens when scientists shed intense x-ray light on very ancient remains. From the writings of Archimedes to prehistoric traces of soft tissues, and from the remains of Archaeopteryx to Confuciusornis, scientists are unlocking fossilized chemical ghosts. What they learn will undoubtedly yield benefits to our understanding of Earth processes, from the past and present, but also the future.

How it works

Synchrotrons were primarily built for physicists to smash particles together in order to identify the fundamental building blocks of matter. Intense x-rays are a by-product of accelerating particles in this way, but they were not initially used by particle physicists.

Nowadays synchrotrons are primarily built around x-ray experiments. The scientists behind this exhibit are working in collaboration with the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) in the USA and the Diamond synchrotron in the UK on analysing fossils using synchrotron radiation.

Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence has been used for many years in quantitative elemental analysis of a whole range of samples. Synchrotron-based XRF imaging combines the elemental sensitivity of X-rays with the high spatial resolution and intensity of synchrotron radiation. Recently the technique has been successfully applied at SSRL to studying large objects including human brain slices, the Archimedes Palimpsest and rare fossils preserving soft tissue. The unique chemistry of each object is the key to the research and is helping scientists to understand the processes that affect an organism once it is buried.


In this video podcast Claire Birch, from the Royal Society, interviews Dr Phil Manning and Dr Roy Wogelius who, along with their colleagues, have published a paper in Proceedings B which describes a new non-destructive method for studying fossilised soft tissue. They have demonstrated that infrared mapping can be used to study fossil reptile skin and in future could provide a valuable insight into the biochemistry of extinct organisms.

Dr Phil Manning and Dr Roy Wogelius discuss chemical evidence for the survival of animal pigment residue that is over 120 million years old and they show that trace metals in fossils can be mapped to reveal original pigmentation patterns. This video was produced and edited by Carla Schaffer and Natasha Pinol in the Office of Public Programs at AAAS in cooperation with the University of Manchester.

Lead image: Archaeopteryx, the Thermopolis specimen, from the Upper Jurassic (150 million years old) of southern Germany. Credit: P.L. Manning