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Niton unlocks Stonehenge secrets

The ancient stones at Stonehenge and their wider landscape is being investigated with the help of a Niton XL3t material analyser from Niton UK.

By producing instant read-outs of the composition of stones and soil, the handheld x-ray fluorescence instrument has allowed the archaeological team from Sheffield University to change the way they work.

The Niton XL3t enabled the team, coordinated by archaeologist Roger Doonan, to make a rapid preliminary characterisation of variability amongst stone working debris associated with the erection of Stonehenge. This took place in-situ as the excavation progressed, meaning that results could be evaluated as decisions were made. Chemical data does not normally inform excavation strategy since waiting times for results from conventional laboratory-based analyses can take months.

“Without the Niton XL3t we simply could not operate in this way,” said Dr Doonan, who is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Sheffield. “It has offered us new ways to work.”

The multidisciplinary project, directed by Prof Mike ParkerPearson is looking at how Stonehenge relates to the wider landscape.

A critical consideration is investigating the area associated with working (dressing) the stones prior to their erection. It appears that a variety of stones were used and this needs to be understood, in terms of where they came from and what they were.

“The Niton XL3t has proven to be very reliable and most importantly it is pretty much weatherproof. It is also very flexible, which is ideal for a research environment,” continued Dr Doonan. “The ability to rely on fundamental parameter calibrations but to undertake our own empirical calibrations as well is a great combination.”

The Niton XL3t has the advantage of offering light element analysis, since in some applications it is important to measure elements such as phosphorus or silicon. The in-situ analysis of Phosphorus is particularly powerful as this is an element which is often a direct indicator of human activity; such capabilities mean that the instrument will be increasingly used in mainstream archaeology.

The Niton instrument is being used for a wide range of tasks, from basic artefact analysis through to chemical characterisation of soil to look at how people inhabit different spaces. Dr Doonan has recently undertaken a survey of a Bronze Age landscape and surveyed heavy metals over one hectare at 2m resolution in three days using only three people. Previously such work had taken three people over a week just to collect samples and then months in the laboratory processing them.

“I chose the Niton XL3t because of Niton UK’s customer service, since their support, advice and assistance are excellent. Their technical support staff acted like tutors, meaning that we have had intelligent discussions characterised by a very honest atmosphere” said Dr Doonan.

Roger Doonan’s main research focus is on ancient technology, and he has undertaken archaeological projects in Peru, Greece, Italy, Siberia, Romania, Isle of Man and the UK.

For further information on the University of Sheffield, please visit

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