X-ray gun shines a light on Fermanagh’s Iron Age past

AN archaeologist was recently seen lurking around Enniskillen Castle with a gun.

While this sounds like a plot for an Indiana Jones movie, the real story – while without the action of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – has its own sense of drama in discovering Fermanagh’s Iron Age past.

Dr Rena Maguire of University College Dublin, was at the Fermanagh County Museum at the castle with a fluorescent X-ray gun designed to examine historic artefacts to see what they were made out of.


A number of swords from the Iron Age were inspected by Dr Maguire – who is working on are post-doctoral project funded by the Irish Research Council – to find out how technology evolved during the Iron Age which lasted from 600BC to 450AD.

She said: “What I’m looking for is where there are changes in alloy. A PRFX gun can – without destroying the object – can excite all the neutrons on the object and capture the speed that they move back with is captured which enables us to see what each object has been made of.

“Every single element is made up of electrons and neutrons circling around a core. Whenever I pull the trigger of this gun, this tiny wee X-ray goes shooting off into the first couple of microns on the metal surface. It basically plays pinball with them.

“The little neutrons and electrons all start moving off at different speeds. The machine, like a mirror, takes the speed of each of those things and computes it to shown a concentration of each alloy.

“For example, in something that was gold, the machine can maybe tell that while the majority of the object is gold, there are also elements of copper and silver and what percentage of those elements.”

It will be a while before the full results are released, Dr Maguire is keen to seen how the technology used back then was influenced by ancient Rome.

She added: “When the Romans bring over their technology – which they’ve no doubt nicked from somebody else such as ancient Greece – the tribes of Briton start to take pieces of the technology that they want but are able to keep their own identity at the same time.


“Now we’ve never known what has gone on with Ireland. Obviously, we were not invaded by Rome, but we were certainly doing a lot of trade with the Romans.

“There’s this idea that we remained in some Celtic mist segregated from events across the water and that Holy Mother Ireland was never touched by the ‘dirty hands of Rome’.

“Now we find that we were actually giving the Romans dogs and slaves and in return we were being given pretty brooches and horses. History is messy.”

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