A radioactive shamanic apron with glass disease

A radioactive shamanic apron with glass disease
Rachel Swift, Andrew S. Meek, Nicole Rode
and Anouska Komlosy

Summary

A shamanic apron produced in Siberia in the nineteenth century was selected as an integral part
of a new display at the British Museum. The apron, made from reindeer hide, is heavily adorned with free-
moving amulets, metal rings and tassels threaded with
colourful beads. A visual assessment identified glass
disease – crizzling, cracking and fragmentation – occurring only on the pale yellow beads. Analysis using
energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry in a scanning electron microscope confirmed that an unstable glass
composition was the cause.
To enable the public to see this striking object that is unique within the British Museum collection before
the beads fragment beyond repair, it was approved for temporary display and conserved. Even with an ideal,
tightly controlled environment, the beads with advanced glass disease will continue to deteriorate at an inde-
terminable rate. An interventive approach was taken to provide temporary cohesion for the beads in the form
of localized consolidation and detached elements were reintroduced to restore the appearance of the apron.
Analysis also indicated the presence of uranium, added as the glass colourant. Using a Geiger counter
it was established that the pale yellow beads were emitting ionizing radiation. This result, combined with
ultraviolet-induced fluorescence imaging, confirmed that only the pale yellow beads contained uranium.
This was first time uranium glass had been discovered in a composite object at the British Museum and as
such it was necessary to identify protocols for its handling, storage and display. Fortunately the levels emitted
were low enough that the radioactive nature of the apron will not preclude its future display or careful hand-
ling. The apron will continue to be monitored regularly, but its conservation and display ensures that access to
this beautiful and unique object is maximized before the pale yellow beads, which are intrinsic to the object,
are inevitably lost beyond repair.
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