Not Your Doctor’s X-Ray: X-Radiography of Iron from Excavations at Cardiff Castle

How are X-rays used in archaeological conservation? This blog post demonstrates one use of X-rays and covers the initial investigative X-radiography of iron objects recovered from excavations at Cardiff Castle. It presents a very basic theory behind archaeological X-radiography and reports its use on specific iron artefacts from an assemblage of 2000+ iron objects recovered from the excavations. The use of X-radiography on copper alloys will be presented in a later blog post. Future posts will reveal another use of X-rays in the form of X-ray fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy.

General Theory

The following general theory of X-radiography may get a little thick and you should feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The general theory behind X-radiography is that a steady stream of high energy X-rays are emitted from an X-ray source and directed towards the material to be X-rayed. As the X-rays interact with the material, some of them are absorbed while others with higher energy pass through striking a form of detector (e.g. film or scanning bed). Our system uses film. A greyscale two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional object is presented when the film is developed. The brightness of the image indicates X-ray absorption and object density. For example, a brighter area on the film indicates more X-rays were absorbed by a greater object density in that area, i.e. there were less X-rays available to impact the film. Darker images reveal areas of lower density or absence of object, i.e. more X-rays were available to impact the film turning it darker grey or black. This may seem counter-intuitive at first but with continued examination of X-rays it will become second nature.

A developed X-ray film is called a radiograph. In archaeological conservation, radiographs are used to determine object shape, method of assembly, presence of decoration, hidden damage and structural weakness, and extent of decay. X-Radiography is also used as an initial investigative technique to determine objects that require further cleaning.

The Iron Collection

Over 2000 individual iron objects were presented for initial investigation using X-radiography. The assemblage consisted of many readily identifiable objects such as nails. Many other objects were covered in dense corrosion crusts and visual identification was difficult to impossible. Some of the iron material had spalled during storage resulting in fragmentation. In other words, these objects had broken apart since they were excavated.

X-Radiography Methodology

X-radiography was used to determine what the objects might be, the condition they might be in and the significance of the object and whether it required cleaning. The iron artefacts were X-rayed in batches composed of objects of similar thickness/density.  Many of the objects that had spalled during storage were individually wrapped in tissue allowing the fragments to be X-rayed in place (in-situ) as long as the tissue was not removed. This facilitated the possibility of using the radiograph to visualize the original shape of the object. Annotations were made on the surface of the X-radiographs after they were developed. The annotations contain information regarding the project name, the x-ray parameters used and the archaeological context for object groups or special finds numbers for individual objects.

Our results

For this post, the results will be presented in pictures with captions. Select objects in the images will be referenced in the captions. No picture can show the detail and contrast of the original radiograph. For this reason, the radiographs from the project were digitally recorded using both a dedicated digital X-ray laser scanner and a DSLR camera. The digital scanner was set to best image quality and highest resolution. The DSLR images were taken on a Nikon 3100 using ISO 100, f-stop 5.6 and shutter speed of 1/6 seconds with 18 mm lens on a copy stand. RAW images were produced and post-processed to increase contrast. Comparing the two sets of x-ray images, the DLSR have greater contrast more closely resembling the original film but at the loss of some visual information. The DLSR does allow recordation of annotations made on film surface. The laser scanned images, on the other hand, retain all the visual information but with less contrast. Surface annotations on the film do not scan well. Both sets will be represented in the displayed images below with the DSLR image above the digitally scanned image.

J714nCardiff Castle J714

J714: Object ‘A’ is a bent iron strap with a possible nail remaining in situ. Corrosion covers the nail body. The left edge of the strap reveals a partial hole possibly meant for a second nail. The object itself appears to be intact although relatively thin when compared to the denser areas of object ‘B’.  Object ‘B’ is a horse shoe.

J750nCardiff Castle J750

J750: Objects ‘A’ and ‘B’ are nails possibly retaining their original embedded orientation in an object, or have been concreted together with iron corrosion. ‘A’ consists of two nails and ‘B’ of three or more nails. The structural density of the nails is less than some of the other objects on this radiograph. This is evident in our ability to ‘see-through’ the bodies of the nails. We do not know, however, their actual mechanical strength. Most observations made in archaeological radiography are relative.

J796nCardiff Castle J796

J796: Object ‘A’ is a tool bit. Object ‘B’ is an iron strap end and ‘C’ may be a file. The tool bit (A) appears to be spalling as there are voids evident between the core body and the outer edges. A relatively severe crack in the body two-thirds of the way toward the right may indicate a structural weakness in the object. Extra care should be taken when handling this object. The strap end (B) appears relatively thinner than the tool bit. The bright spot in the center represents a denser material. It may be the remnant of an iron nail. The file (C) reveals great structural weakness and lower density. The tip (far right) is susceptible to breaking off of the object. The left-most portion of the object reveals greater density probably due to thickness of the object. This is where it would connect to a handle.

J798nCardiff Castle J798

J798: It is difficult to determine what object ‘A’ is based on the DSLR image (top). The scanned image readily reveals that it is a saw fragment with the saw teeth pointed towards the top of the images.  The radiographs show that the teeth are relatively weak when compared to the rest of the saw blade body.

J800nCardiff Castle J800

J800: This series of radiographs is similar to the last in that ‘A’ also represents a saw fragment. This saw blade is lower in density and relatively weak (the edge opposite the teeth in particular) when compared to some of the other objects in this radiograph. A size comparison of the saw blade teeth in these images and those of the previous radiographs (J798) suggests that the fragments come from two different saws.

J805nCardiff Castle J805

J805: The labelled objects consist of keys (A and B), wire (C) and possibly nails (D) similar to those in radiograph J750.  The bow is intact for key ‘A’ but is partially missing in key ‘B’. Both keys reveal a partially hollow stem where they would fit over a shaft in the lock mechanism. The ward (the part that interacts with the lock mechanism) is missing on both of the keys. The wire (C) is tangled and partially twisted. The possible nails (D) are oriented to appear to be pointed toward or away from the observer of the radiograph.

J816nCardiff Castle J816

J816: The selected objects are a key (A) and a possible knife blade (B). The key is intact but the stem is bent in two areas. The bow of the key is generally intact but the radiograph reveals a weak area covered in corrosion crust. The ward is intact but is relatively weaker than the stem. The knife blade (B) is missing the proximal end where the handle would be fitted. The blade, being thin, is less dense and relatively weaker than other objects in the radiograph. The bright spot on the knife is a denser material. This bright spot probably represents something that has been concreted into the corrosion crust on the knife and is not a part of the actual knife. Remember, a radiograph is a representation of a 3D object in a 2D image.

J817nCardiff Castle J817

J817: The selected object (A) is also a knife blade (compare with J816). This blade is complete with the tang where the handle would be fitted. The radiograph reveals, however, that there are major cracks in the object. If this object was cleaned there would be a high probability that the blade would be in pieces. Note the two long stick-like objects to the right of the knife. The radiograph reveals that these two objects have spalled. This is evident in that there appear to be spaces between many of the smaller fragments and the main body. They appear to be intact because the objects were not removed from the tissue in which they were wrapped prior to the X-raying process.

In conclusion, we have seen here how the use of X-rays have informed us of the identity and condition of the objects without spending the time and money in cleaning them. If we chose to clean them, we would know what to expect such as areas of low density and structural weakness. We have also seen the difference between digitally laser scanned radiographs and photographed radiographs. Having the original radiographs in hand is the best way to interpret them. But using both scanned and photographed digital copies can provide a similar level of revelation.

The next blog post will examine the conservation of ~200 Roman coins recovered from the Cardiff Castle excavations.


Conservation of Select Artefacts from the Cardiff Castle Excavations

Welcome to the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust (GGAT) conservation webpage and blog. Over the next several weeks I, and others, will be posting on the conservation cleaning and treatment of a variety of archaeological materials recovered from excavations at Cardiff Castle. The goal of these posts is to inform on the conservation of some of the materials excavated from the grounds of Cardiff Castle. With each post we will look at the conservation of selected artefacts or use of a specific conservation or analytical technique. Look for periodic conservation posts to have a peek at what we, as conservators, are doing to conserve artefacts and to expand on the story of Cardiff Castle and Cardiff as a city.

As background, GGAT contacted Cardiff Conservation Services at Cardiff University to work on a selection of artefacts excavated from the footprint of the current Interpretation Center within the walls of Cardiff Castle. The objects, most of which are Roman in origin, are varied and consist of iron, copper alloy, silver, stone and glass.

Most of the archaeologically recovered material consists of metal objects. This material is typically covered in corrosion and soil from the burial matrix. The corrosion and soil may require removal to expose the original surface details and reveal additional information, such as presence of decoration. Some objects may be broken and require re-adhering. Other objects could be actively corroding. Most objects will exhibit a combination of these conditions and possibly some conditions not yet mentioned. Other material types will present their own issues and will be covered in upcoming posts.

The conservation goal for the Cardiff Castle objects is stabilization in preparation for long-term storage. Stabilization of the objects will facilitate their preservation and allow future study and/or display of them. A secondary goal is to reveal additional information such as how were they constructed and the presence/absence of decoration.

Various techniques were used during the conservation of these objects. Photographs were taken before and after, and in many cases, during conservation. X-Radiography was used to identify heavily encrusted objects and to determine if further conservation is warranted. Cleaning using bench tools, and possibly chemicals, was required to reveal the original surface and additional information. X-Ray fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy was used to provide elemental composition which, in turn, provided additional information on technology.

From top and around clockwise: Pretreatment images of Roman maille, X-ray of coins, Roman intaglio, glass, back-scattered electron image of glass inlay in brooch, coin, X-ray of wood covered in calcium deposits, and brooch.

We will post at intervals of at least once every two weeks but posts will be made more frequently at times. Join us for our next conservation post as we report on the X-radiography of corrosion-encrusted iron objects.

Visit to the National Museum, Cardiff

by Dimana Markova

As the excavations were on a scheduled ancient monument and potentially all finds that we discovered would be of a significant nature, GGAT worked closely with The National Museum of Wales Cardiff, who carried out initial finds identification. An invitation has been provided to myself to go a look at the most interesting ones.
I was welcomed by Evan Chapman – a senior curator in Cardiff Museum. After greeting me, we went to the offices of the Museum, a labyrinth underneath the public section of the building where everything that isn’t part of the ongoing exhibitions is being kept. He had already prepared for me quite a few large containers filled with small boxes, each labelled with a number and carefully put in paper. Some of the finds I was looking at were so fragile I barely had the courage to touch them, fearing I might delete history or at least get myself kicked out before I have seen all of the finds


While carefully looking through things, such as a toilet set, brooches, bracelets, keys and belts I couldn’t help but wonder what their lives would have been like. Mr Chapman fills in some of the gaps for me, giving me details such as the fact that only in Wales are those brooches so common, or that those specific bells were only used for horses and specifically for the cavalry’s horses.He helps me see how what I am looking at was once a toilet set containing nail cleaners, tweezers and a sheet rivet.


As I am admiring a small figure of a bird I ask him what he thinks is the most interesting find from this excavations.

He gives me an excited look and I immediately know he’s about to show me something more extraordinary than the bird I am admiring so much. From a medium sized box he takes out an object that doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before, he puts it in front of me and waits for my question.

I naturally ask him what this is, to which simply replies ‘Nobody knows’. I am stunned, because not only has he shown me so many things, that barely looked like objects which he knew exactly what they were and even shared quite specific details about them. This object was covered in mud and corrosion products when discovered, but has been conserved by Phil Parkes, Cardiff University, so that it can be studied in more detail. It is the only one found it Wales so far, yet there are a few that have been found across the UK. Some believe it was part of a surveillance system, others that it was a candle holder and the ones with the most vivid imagination say it is a magical object used for some kind of sorcery in the Roman period. Mr Chapman even jokingly says “it might be a spaghetti measurer, for all we know!”. However none of those theories quite adds up and maybe only the magical one explains its preserved condition and the fact it is so rare.

After this Mr Evans shows me some other finds, including pottery and things that have not yet been examined. He explains to me that the whole process of examining each individual object takes up a lot of time as they have to x-ray each one to see what there is inside the oxidised crust and then proceed to clean it.

As we go back through the labyrinth corridors I ask him if he thinks that someday what we considered normal for our everyday life objects would be in a museum, if scientists would wander what something, that we know see as trivial, was used for. He nods and tells me that he hopes it will be in a museum.

The Bute family

The Castle passed through many noble families until, passing by marriage in 1766, came to the hands of the 2nd Marquess of Bute. After turning Cardiff into the world’s greatest coal exporting port for it’s time he left the Cardiff Castle to his son, the 3rd Marquess of Bute who, in 1860, was reputed to be the richest man in the world. He also transformed the building that was given to him, into the majestic Castle we all know, beginning its transformation in 1865. It was back then when the 18 year old Marquess of Bute met the Gothic Revival architect William Burges. In the next 16 years their combined genius and the work of the finest craftsmen in Wels created the remarkable building that still exists. Beginning with the restoration of the South Gate and continuing with the Clock Tower and many of the rooms in the building, Burges left his mark on the entire castle.

Even after the death of William Burges in 1881 the work continued because of his detailed drawings of everything from exterior to interior and the help of his former assistant William Frame. Frame was responsible for the Animal Wall and for the restoring of the newly discovered Roman remains. After it was finished, the castle was used for about six weeks a year, when the Marquess would spend time in Cardiff. After the 3rd Marquess died in 1900 he left the estate to his son, John, who went on to complete a number of his father’s restoration projects.

During the Second World War the Castle largely escaped enemy action, although two adjacent lodges were destroyed, and the outer walls were used as air-raid shelters, capable of holding nearly 2000 people.

In 1947 the Castle was given to the people of Cardiff by the 4th Marquess of Bute, naming him to be the ‘man who sold a city’ after he sold out the remaining Bute family estate in Cardiff.