New developments in structural analysis applied to cultural property

The physico-chemical characterization of materials used in artwork and artifacts is a flourishing field of research in the conservation sciences. Such characterization work makes it easier to understand any chemical changes that have already occurred and to anticipate threats to the effective preservation of cultural property.
The study of materials found in cultural heritage is a real scientific challenge because of their diversity and their interactions with their environment. The interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary nature of the issues arising constitutes fertile ground for the methodologies, analysis techniques and views emanating from each specific scientific field to be optimized and, ultimately, applied with inventiveness.
The work carried out under the theme of “New Developments in Structural Analysis applied to Cultural Property” aims to develop and fine-tune experiments that will be capable of solving preservation problems relating to cultural heritage, while introducing new analytical strategies in mass spectrometry for the CRC’s research domains.


One area of research involves the characterization of chemical markers of origin for ancient Asian paper specimens by using mass spectrometry. In this innovative procedure it is possible to target specific, geographically traceable molecules that appear in the composition of the paper samples, which were manufactured using little-documented traditional techniques.
This research seeks to introduce a new analytical approach for identifying ancient Asian paper specimens through the recognition of specific fingerprints by using two-dimensional gas chromatography and the characterization of specific markers by coupling liquid chromatography and high-resolution mass spectrometry.

A second research topic concerns the characterization of metabolites that are markers of contamination by fungal strains present in ancient paper.
What makes this approach valuable is that it enables detection of fungal activity at the earliest stage of its development, since detecting traces of metabolic activity would presumably be preferable to detecting fungal activity (visible to the eye), which signals an already advanced state of degradation.
For example, microbial volatile organic compounds are in some cases more easily dispersed than the corresponding spores, which facilitates their detection: these volatiles are thus good indicators of mold growth. Early detection of such markers of contamination in confined atmospheres – such as storage areas – may provide an effective diagnostic tool to prevent widespread contamination.
Protocols for the detection of chemical markers of fungal strain contamination are organized around the characterization of microbial organic compounds by GC/MS and GCxGC/MS (mono-dimensional and two-dimensional gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, respectively) and by liquid chromatography coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry, LC/MS.

In the field of conservation sciences, much could be gained from the development of new rapid screening methods capable of yielding reliable qualitative or quantitative information on the presence of chemical markers of contamination or degradation. For this reason, another area of research focuses on the potential offered by new methods of ionization at atmospheric pressure in mass spectrometry (desorption electrospray ionization, DESI; and Direct Analysis in Real Time, DART) for the analysis of samples with no prior solvent extraction and with minimal preparation of the surfaces to be analyzed.

Case studies

While the cross-cutting work of “New Developments in Structural Analysis applied to Cultural Property” continues to develop its own subjects, it can also be applied to the development of new methodologies for studying and analyzing heritage items held in museum collections or archives, or historical monuments, especially when complex organic mixtures and their associated materials need to be identified so as to assess their state of degradation.

The team