British archaeologists and engineers have collaborated to examine buried Roman coins using the latest X-ray imaging technology. Originally designed for the analysis of substantial engineering parts, such as jet turbine blades, the powerful scanning equipment at the University of Southampton's ยต-VIS Center for Computed Tomography is being used to examine Roman coins buried in three archaeological artifacts from three hoards in the United Kingdom.

© University of SouthamptonComputer rendered image of the coins extracted from the CT data scan of the complete pot from the Selby Area Hoard
The equipment can scan inside objects - rotating 360 degrees whilst taking thousands of 2D images, which are then used to build detailed 3D images.

In the case of the coins, the exceptionally high energy/high resolution combination of the Southampton facilities allows them to be examined in intricate detail without the need for physical excavation or cleaning. For those recently scanned at Southampton, it has been possible to use 3D computer visualization capabilities to read inscriptions and identify depictions of emperors on the faces of the coins - for example on some, the heads of Claudius II and Tetricus I have been revealed.

"Excavating and cleaning just a single coin can take hours or even days, but this technology gives us the opportunity to examine and identify them quickly and without the need for conservation treatment at this stage. It also has potential for examining many other archaeological objects," said Dr Graeme Earl, an archaeologist with the University of Southampton.

"The University's Archaeological Computing Research Group can then take this one step further - producing accurate, high resolution CGI visualizations based on scan data. This gives archaeologists and conservators around the world the opportunity to virtually examine, excavate and 'clean' objects," Dr Earl added.

"This scanning technique is already yielding some fascinating results and the possibility of identifying a hoard of coins in a pot, without removing them, is very exciting," explained Dr Roger Bland, Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum. "Working with archaeologists and engineers at Southampton, it is exciting to be pioneering and exploring the potential of a process which is faster, cheaper and less interventive than excavation."

Director of the University's ยต-VIS Center for Computed Tomography, Prof Ian Sinclair said: "Our center examines a wide variety of objects from the layup of individual carbon fibers in aircraft wing components, to the delicate roots of growing plants, and now ancient Roman coins. It is our integration of state-of-the-art imaging hardware, world-class computing and image processing expertise, which allows us to break new ground."

"We have recently formed an inter-disciplinary research group for Computationally Intensive Imaging, which brings together a broad spectrum of world-class imaging activities from disciplines across the University - of which this project is an excellent example."

The University of Southampton and the owners of the artifacts have plans to share the scan data with the public, hopefully through future exhibitions and online.