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Three thousand and six hundred years ago the island of Santorini (Thera) blew its top. In a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, thirty cubic kilometres of pumice and volcanic ash buried the island and its civilisation. These dramatic events have given rise to a number of legends and myths including that of the lost city of Atlantis. The apparent sudden destruction of the Minoan civilisation on the Island of Crete used to be ascribed to this catastrophic event, although modern day archaeologists no longer believe this to be true. Moreover, the timing of the volcanic eruption was undoubtedly close to the timing of the exodus of the Jews from ancient Egypt and a rational explanation for the ten plagues described in the Old Testament follows some of the predicted events with a volcanic eruption of this magnitude.
Approximately two years ago, a shaft was being dug to provide foundations for a permanent protective cover over the archaeological excavations at Akrotiri, a site at the southern tip of the crescent-shaped island. Amongst the rubble, a workman discovered a perfectly preserved wooden box containing a most beautifully crafted and perfectly preserved golden ibex about the size of a new born kitten. Closer inspection revealed that it was hollow with all four limbs welded at the junction with the trunk. The local experts assumed it was fabricated by using the lost wax technique but the technique for welding the limbs onto the trunk was a mystery.
This sublimely proportioned artefact can be looked upon in three ways–as an object venerated for its beauty, as an archaeological curiosity capable of throwing light on the bronze age civilisations of the Cicladean Islands and their trading links, and as a technological challenge to assay the gold and interpret the technique for joining the limbs to the trunk which in its own way would shed light on its archaeological provenance.
In June 2000 a group consisting of archaeologists, technologists and–as will be explained below–oncologists gathered in the subterranean laboratories of the archaeological museum in Thera. The golden ibex was placed upon a laboratory table and a miniature x-ray source was directed precisely at the weld at the junction between a hind-limb and the trunk of this enigmatic beast. Electrons were accelerated down the capillary tube and x-rays from the gold target at the tip of the device excited the molecules within the Bronze Age weld of the ancient gold. The signal from the excitation of these molecules was then picked up by another extraordinary technological invention developed for the NASA Mars exploration project. This detection probe then provided us with a wave form printout describing the precise content of the solder. Thus with the benefits of modern technology the artisan of an ancient Cicladean culture was able to speak to us over the centuries.
This same x-ray device has also been developed for use in intraoperative radiotherapy in the treatment of early breast cancer. Introduced within the cavity following wide local excision of an early breast cancer it can deliver a full booster dose of radiation to the excision margins.1 As an oncologist involved in the development of the technique, I was invited to attend the investigation of the golden ibex, and was thus privileged to witness an historic first in the history of archaeology.
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