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Art & Artifacts


Artifacts and projects: From Stonehenge to house painting to C&EN’s Top 50 US chemical producers

by Alexander H. Tullo
August 23, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 32


Solving the Stonehenge mystery

A photo of Stonehenge.
Credit: Shutterstock
This rocks: Scientists may have finally discovered where the sarsens for Stonehenge came from.

In Stonehenge, “the banshees live and they do live well,” according to fictional rock group Spinal Tap.

While that is probably true, what has remained unknown for centuries is where the rock for the enormous megaliths—each 6 to 7 m in height and 20 metric tons in mass—was quarried from when Stonehenge was erected around 2500 BCE. The conventional wisdom for more than 4 centuries had been that the builders sourced the sarsen stone from Marlborough Downs, England, about 30 km (18.6 mi) to the north.

In research published in Science Advances, a team led by David J. Nash from the University of Brighton has identified a different probable location (2020, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc0133).

The scientists took X-ray fluorescence spectrometry data for 52 Stonehenge sarsens. All but two share the nearly identical chemical composition—more than 99% silica with traces of other elements, such as aluminum, iron, and titanium—and thus likely originated from the same place.

Nash and coworkers’ breakthrough came from the inductively coupled plasma mass and atomic emission spectrometry analysis of a core taken from one of the stones during a restoration in the 1950s. The core had been thought lost until it surfaced in the US in the hands of a former restoration worker in 2018.

The scientists compared the signature of trace elements in the core to those found in deposits around England. They pinpointed West Woods, about 25 km (15.5 mi) north of Stonehenge, not far from Marlborough Downs, to be the closest match. The team is calling for further investigation, perhaps to identify the precise pits the Stonehenge megaliths came from.


Lockdown painting

People quarantining at home to stem the advance of COVID-19 have been undertaking construction projects of their own, albeit at a more modest scale than Stonehenge. Just as people have been hording toilet paper and learning how to make their own bread, people have also been sprucing up their homes—painting in particular.

John G. Morikis, the CEO of Sherwin-Williams, described the demand as “unprecedented” in a recent conference call with financial analysts. The company didn’t put a precise number on the sales increase, but it is selling more paint to consumers than it did a year ago. The company even redirected production from 5 gallon pails, which contractors use, to the single gallons favored by consumers.

“In our stores, it’s often referred to as a COVID project,” he said. “Where people have been in their home for some time and they might have a bedroom that they’ve never really considered repainting. And they realize that it’s very affordable and a highly impactful project. And they tackle it.”

The effect has reverberated all the way back through the supply chain to the chemical raw materials used in paints. Chemours reported that sales of titanium dioxide, a white pigment used to boost paint opacity, to this sector have remained healthy. Dow said similar things about acrylic paint resins.


C&EN artifact unearthed

A picture of a ledger sheet that was used to prepare the Top 50 that appeared in 1971.
Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
Old school: This nearly 50-year-old spreadsheet was used to prepare C&EN's Top 50 US chemical producers feature.

The Newscripts gang recently found a piece of C&EN history. It is a spreadsheet used to produce the C&EN Top 50 US chemical producers feature that was published on April 26, 1971. It isn’t an Excel spreadsheet. It is a genuine paper ledger sheet where a draft of the Top 50 was organized in pencil.

It must have been laborious to put together this feature like that—tabulating data by hand, writing everything out, and correcting data manually. Not to mention that the author probably had to send away for annual reports from each company instead of finding the primary sources on the internet.

As for the ranking itself, DuPont came in first that year with 1970 chemical sales of $3.2 billion. By our count, 12 names on the ranking then, including DuPont, were still there this year. The other 38 companies were lost to name changes or mergers over the years.

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