New application of peptide mass fingerprinting in identification of materials used in cultural objects at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has received a grant to begin sampling and identifying materials used in cultural artifacts in its collections. Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF) is a method developed in recent years that allows scientists to identify proteins. For museums, this technique means the ability to identify with accuracy to the species level the mammalian sources of objects made of skin, tendon, ligament, bone, and gut.
Until now, the identification of mammalian materials used in objects has principally utilized oral histories and visual and/or tactile examination, all of which can be inaccurate. Other testing techniques required destructive sampling, which was not desirable. An important advantage to PMF is that is uses only micro-samples, a few tens of micrograms, minimizing the damage to artifacts in testing.
The Peabody Museum began to test use of this method as part of a recent project that involved the study and conservation of nineteenth-century Alutiiq and Yup’ik kayaks, including the only known example of an Alutiiq warrior-whaler kayak. Analyzed samples were found to be of common seal, whale, sea lion, bearded seal, and caribou.
Project results will be used to begin to define a cultural map of mammalian use of objects from coastal Native Alaska, North West and Northern California, and the High Plains regions. PMF offers a significant step forward for museums in their efforts to understand and preserve their collections. It also increases the amount of information museums are able to provide to researchers and to the communities from which the objects come. For indigenous groups, the use of traditional materials and manufacture is an important part of cultural revitalization efforts and a frequent topic of discussion and collaboration with collecting museums.