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Analytical Chemistry

Dating Silk

Minimally invasive mass spec method determines age of centuries-old fabrics

by Sarah Everts
September 12, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 37

This Turkish tapestry from the 1500s was used to calibrate a new silk-dating technique.
The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.
This Turkish tapestry from the 1500s was used to calibrate a new silk-dating technique.

Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution have developed a way to determine the age of ancient silk from just a piece of fluff from priceless textiles. The new mass spectrometry-based technique requires a silk sample size that is signficantly smaller than what is needed for successful carbon-14 dating, the only other scientific method that can date silk, explains Mehdi Moini, a conservation chemist at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. Moini developed the technique with Kathryn Klauenberg and Mary Ballard (Anal. Chem., DOI: 10.1021/ac201746u). Silk is composed of intertwining strands of protein extruded by a silkworm and has been used as a textile for some 2,500 years in flags, tapestries, carpets, and clothing. The Smithsonian team examined aspartic acid residues in silk protein and found that, over time, aspartic acid racemizes, changing from the l form to the d form. By measuring the l-to-d ratio, the age of the textile can be determined, they say.


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