Newswise — Mississippi State researchers are acquiring a high-tech laser instrument described as an "atomic paring knife" that will be used, among other things, to probe the mysteries of ancient civilizations. Hailed as the first such unit of its type in the Southeastern United States, the university's Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer will provide organizations across Mississippi—academic, non-profit and industrial—with unique capabilities for quantitative surface analysis and depth profiling. It was purchased with a National Science Foundation grant of more than $264,000 awarded to a team of MSU researchers at Diagnostic Instrumentation and Analysis Laboratory—known as DIAL—and Cobb Institute of Archaeology. "The instrument can be used to map surfaces—find defects or specific surface features," said DIAL director John Plodinec. "One also can do depth profiling—using the laser system as an atomic paring knife, peeling away layer after layer of material." Associate anthropology professor Evan Peacock predicted the new instrument will greatly enhance MSU's ongoing archaeological investigations at Lyon's Bluff, an Oktibbeha County site where Native Americans dwelled A.D. 1000-1650. Numerous artifacts and the foundation of a prehistoric fort have been found there, the Cobb research associate added. "The new laser ablation (precise removal) system provides a rapid, non-destructive way of tracing pottery to its source," Peacock, an environmental archaeologist, said. Plodinec said the system uses a laser to gently scratch the sample surface, ejecting a small amount of material into plasma, where the atoms are separated by mass. "The instrument provides a complete, rapid and accurate compositional analysis of almost any materials—stone, glass, ceramics, metals—with no sample preparation and minimal damage to the original sample," said DIAL assistant research professor Adriana Giordana, who is coordinating the technological effort for the lab. "The system will help advance research in many MSU departments and several collaborating businesses and institutions," she added. "It also will offer possibilities for student training in a variety of fields." DIAL hopes to have the instrument available for use as quickly as possible, Plodinec explained, and already is engaged in discussions with outside organizations that might utilize the technology, including the George Ohr Museum in Biloxi. The instrument's versatile, user-friendly design allows a wide variety of applications, including: monitoring of changes in soils caused by plants; analysis of the composition and microstructure of waste forms for nuclear waste; determination of glaze and clay composition in modern and ancient pottery; determination of leaching of metal ions from bone replacement and dental implants into surrounding tissues; and detection of trace quantities of wood preservatives and metals on wood surfaces, Plodinec said. According to Peacock, Native Americans between A.D. 1000-1650 added crushed mussel shells to clay and utilized a host of decorative techniques to produce very fine, thin-walled pots. Some were painted, some were engraved with thin lines depicting mythological symbols, and some were covered with small bumps or nodes. "Archaeologists studying the prehistoric past try to use these styles to trace the movement of people and ideas across the landscape, but this is a difficult thing to test," he said. "A preliminary analysis of pottery from the Lyon's Bluff site suggests that at least three different source areas are represented. This project will be greatly expanded, once the laser ablation system is set up at MSU." Other planned projects by the Cobb Institute and colleagues in MSU's department of sociology, anthropology, and social work include tracing stone artifacts (arrowheads and spear points) to their source to track prehistoric trade routes.