Sorting antiques from modern shams –

Nikki Macdonald reports in how the radiocarbon dating lab in Lower Hutt gave the 26000 Vodka brand its name, confirmed an ancient waka as pre-European and revealed the age of the old frame chosen for a modern painting in Te Papa Tongarewa.

Nikki’s feature articles won her a Canon Media Award in 2011 and she is also in the running for this year’s “Newspaper Feature of the Year” award.

Credit: Ross Giblin/
Credit: Ross Giblin/

An excerpt (read the full story here):

Lower Hutt radiocarbon dating lab helps sort antiques from modern shams

From giving a vodka brand its name to exposing sham antiques, Christine Prior’s Lower Hutt radiocarbon dating laboratory is history’s timekeeper.

Here, time is measured in milligrams.

Under a microscope, a lab technician cleans a tiny wood chip extracted from an American museum treasure. This fragment no bigger than a fingernail is enough to divine whether the artefact it came from is really the Roman musical instrument its owners believe it to be.

Lab manager Dr Christine Prior already has bad news for another client – an art authenticator in Hong Kong. The drinking vessels made from rhino horn she sent for radiocarbon dating turned out to be modern fakes.

Although little-feted, GNS’s Rafter Radiocarbon laboratory in Lower Hutt was among the world’s first to use radioactive decay to unravel history. Set up in 1951, it remains the longest-running.

Prior runs the half of the laboratory that cleans and distils samples down to pure elemental carbon, or graphite. Down the hall is her husband Albert Zondervan’s domain – the hulking $3m machine that splits the carbon into its stable and radioactive forms.

On the window sill of Prior’s office sits the Californian personalised number plate CARBN14, which she used before moving to New Zealand in 1997. It’s that radioactive form of carbon – known as C14 – that is the key to discovering whether a carved ivory sculpture is an antiquity or a modern sham feeding poachers’ coffers; whether a water bore is sucking dry an age-old aquifer or tapping a renewable store; whether a picture frame predates the painting in it.

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