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So he has bled off high-purity oxygen into a reservoir that we will then tap as we generate plasmas,” Blinman said.
And what’s unique about “Marvin’s Machine” is that it has five chambers, so multiple samples can be tested at once. “To my knowledge, nobody has gotten more than one plasma running at one time.”The Archaeology Institute of America’s Archaeology magazine named Rowe’s non-destructive dating method one of the Top 10 discoveries of 2010.
(Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)Marvin Rowe, a scientist at the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies, adjusts the Low Energy Plasma Radiocarbon Sampling device he built to date artifacts with minimal damage. That machine he built, and what it’s used for, helped Rowe win the prestigious Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Research from the Society of American Archeology two years ago.“We call the process Low Energy Plasma Radiocarbon Sampling,” said New Mexico’s state archeologist Eric Blinman, who credits Rowe with inventing the process.
“But a lot of people just refer to this as ‘Marvin’s Machine.'”The process is important because, unlike other methods of radiocarbon dating that destroy the sample being tested, LEPRS preserves it.
“But we now have the ability to date incredibly small amounts of carbon – 40-100 millionths of a gram – and that is the real revolutionary aspect of this.
And the ancillary part of that is it’s non-destructive.”That’s important to Nancy Akins, a research associate with the Office of Archaeological Studies, who in February was having a bison tooth and sheep bone tested by “Marvin’s Machine.” The items were excavated from the site of a rock shelter in Coyote Canyon north of Mora.“It could be 500 years old or it could be 5,000 years old,” she said of the bison tooth, the result allowing her to complete her report of the site that she’s determined to have been used by humans as a hunting outpost starting 1,700 years ago.“I’m just waiting on the dates, because it’ll change everything if we get dates where I can actually say, ‘OK, that’s what the sheep bones date to and that’s what the bison dates to.’ It tells us an awful lot about how they were using the land on the east side of the Sangre de Cristos.”Because a lot of that part of New Mexico is private property or under land grants, such finds as the one in Coyote Canyon are rare, she said.“Unless there’s a road or something, we don’t have any information at all.
Comparisons are also made with the amounts of C-14 expected to have existed in the atmosphere in the past.
Blinman explained that Rowe’s alternative process is based on plasmas – ionized gas made up of groups of positively and negatively charged particles, and one of the four fundamental states of matter, alongside solid, liquid and gas.
Most of them that I’ve encountered are inorganic pigments and that’s where the importance of the small sample comes in.”Blinman adds that, under the best of circumstances, standard radiocarbon dating requires 30 milligrams of carbon.
Rock art pigments don’t have that much carbon in them.
“The experience of the artifact is no different than your body temperature or, worst case, Phoenix on a summer day,” he said.
The plasmas in Rowe’s machine are generated with radio frequencies, rather than electricity, and work like a cleaning agent to scrub off the CO2.“We have to use the ultra pure gases because any contamination from modern, atmospheric CO2 is going to screw up the data.
(Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)One of a kind Rowe won his Fryxell Award “based in his prominent role in developing methods for rock art dating and minimally-destructive dating of fragile organic artifacts,” as well as his scientific analysis, scholarship and student training, according to the SAA website. Rowe and two colleagues at Texas A&M’s Department of Chemistry built the first plasma dating machine in 1990 while exploring ways to extract organic carbon from pictograph samples.“Other people have been successful dating charcoal paintings,” Rowe explained.