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ESRF contributes to ritual blood identification


A group of French scientists has identified blood in the outer layers of African ritual art, thanks to the use of several complementary, non-destructive techniques. With these results, the team confirms scientifically what ethnologists already reported at the beginning of the 20th century. This knowledge will help researchers to better understand traditional practices of ethnic groups and assist curators in their conservation efforts in museums. The results of this study are available in the online version of Analytical Chemistry.

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The studied art objects are small statuettes from the African tribes of Dogons and Bamana in Mali, dating from the 12th to the 20th century. They are  made of wood covered with a thick crust of different layers called “patina”. In order to identify the presence of blood and other interesting components in the crust, the researchers, from the Centre de Recherche et Restauration des Musées de France, the Institut de Chimie des Substances Naturelles of the CNRS and the ESRF, used synchrotron light techniques and time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS).

The combination of these two imaging techniques at the ESRF and the CNRS made it possible to detect blood indicators such as heme (using ToF-SIMS) and iron from organic origin (using X-ray synchrotron-based infrared microscopies) in the samples.

This new analytical approach opens the door to anthropologic studies of a wide range of tribal art, as well as paintings. Research on cultural heritage objects has been on-going at the ESRF since five years and today synchrotron light is an increasingly popular tool among curators of major museums.


Study of the patina sample from a Dogon statuette:

a) Photograph of the object, Quai Branly Museum, inventory no 71.1935.105.169, (copyright C2RMF, D. Vigears);
b) Dark field microscopic view of the cross-section of the sample;
c) Backscattered electron micrograph;
d) ToF-SIMS image of protein fragment ions;
e) SR-µFTIR image of proteins.


For more information, go to

New multi-technical approach for identification of ancient blood : ToF-SIMS and Synchrotron Radiation based FTIR and X-rays Micro-spectroscopy's. Vincent Mazel, Pascale Richardin, Delphine Debois, David Touboul, Marine Cotte, Alain Brunelle, Philippe Walter and Olivier Laprévote (2007). Analytical Chemistry. DOI : 10.1021/ac070993k, published online on 9 Novembre 2007.

Top image: One of the studied tribal objects. Copyright C2RMF, D. Vigears