ALLENTOWN — The artifacts on the table, as totemic and mysterious as anything Indiana Jones snatched from the South American jungle, bubbled up from antiquity into the hands of a collector. Then they were delivered to Greg Doolittle, an Allentown radiology technician who normally inspects boilers and bridge girders for cracks and metal fatigue but unexpectedly was drafted into the cause of archaeology.
The Jim Thorpe man has spent weeks turning powerful X-ray equipment on each artifact, penetrating the grit of centuries to give a trio of professors engaged in a research study a better idea how craftsmen of ancient Peru and Bolivia smelted copper and turned it into such beautiful and intricate art.
The pieces are jarring and almost hallucinatory: A squirrel gnawing a human head; a gilt copper pin topped by the “moon animal,” a toothy creature who appears elsewhere among these treasures scoured from archaeological sites; a spike that splits at the top into a double deer head.
One blush-inducing phallic piece hints at a fertility ritual. Another resembles a cosmetic compact, inlaid on one side with pyrite — fool’s gold — polished into a mirror a thousand or so years ago.
Doolittle works for Valley Inspection Service Inc., a nondescript building in an east Allentown industrial park where technicians zap metal objects with X-rays to see where time and stress have made them vulnerable to failure.
The company has been around since 1988 but had never been asked to put antiquities under the beam until Michael Notis, a retired Lehigh University professor who specializes in what is called archaeometallurgy, came along with his box of pieces from the Andes.
Notis is working with a University of Buffalo professor, Aaron Shugar, and an adjunct professor at Lehigh, Dongning Wang, to study the pieces on behalf of owner David Bernstein, a Manhattan collector of pre-Columbian art curious to know more about their manufacture.
Some date to 300 B.C. Even the most recent are 800 years old. They are made of arsenical bronze, a mix of arsenic and copper that predates tin bronze and almost certainly shortened the lives of the people who worked with it.
Spread across the office table at VIS, they exude a sense of lost artistry painful to contemplate.
“These are all museum-quality pieces, but hardly anybody has enough of these from one area to understand how the technology of ancient craftsmanship developed over time,” said Notis, an energetic guide to antiquity whose seasoned eye is, itself, like an X-ray in reading artifacts.
“Most of this is ritualistic,” he said, passing a hand over the spread of spikes, paddles, figurines and bowls coated in green patina. “Much of it was used for processing coca leaves.”
That was a vital endeavor. Coca leaves were the root of ancient medicines and are still used as such today, even though they are best known as the source of cocaine. The leaves were also essential to ritual, burnt as offerings to the sun deity and buried with the dead to accompany them in the afterlife.
Some of the pieces may have been decorative. The pyrite mirror, for example, has a loop on one side and was probably a necklace. Studies of similar mirrors from the cultures of ancient Mexico indicate they were status symbols worn by elites and took many days to make.
“That’s my Indiana Jones find,” said Doolittle, summoning the spirit of the cinematic archaeologist-adventurer as he recounted finding a rope-like pattern stamped around the circumference of the mirror. Hidden by corrosion, it popped out in sharp relief under the X-ray machine.
Doolittle took to the project like a cerebral kid handed a microscope, telescope and chemistry set.
“He’s definitely in his element,” said VIS President Robert Kratzer.
The process of X-raying an artifact is no different than X-raying an arm or a lung. Shoot the penetrating beams at the object and the image is burnt onto film or digital plates. It doesn’t harm the metal, so each artifact can be filmed as many times as necessary to capture all the angles.
Of all the equipment in the shop — including a giant lead-lined X-ray vault with a 20,000-pound door — Doolittle favors a small cabinet with a 1950s control console that looks like it was scavenged from the bridge of Buck Rogers’ spaceship.
He adjusts the strength of the beam with a couple of knobs and — presto — creates ghost-pale images crowded with lines and blotches. Some of these are surface details; others are bubbles inside the porous metal.
Some artifacts that appear to be one piece turned out to have individual parts. Conversely, the broad blade of a paddle — perhaps seamlessly attached to its handle, Notis thought — was hammered out from a single length of metal.
A couple of the artifacts showed telltale signs of restoration. The twin dog’s head adornments on one look identical to the naked eye, but the X-ray reveals one is made of a non-copper material — possibly a coated plastic, Notis said, meaning the replacement was recent.
The craftsmen made the pieces with an ancient process called lost-wax casting. They sculpted intricate clay molds and filled them with beeswax. Once the clay dried, the molten bronze was poured in through a passage called a sprue, melting the beeswax away.
The process likely took months, Notis said, mainly because smelting copper was slow and painstaking work. But the finished pieces were, obviously, made for the ages.
Shugar, in Buffalo, performed chemical analysis of the pieces, a process that can tell the researchers where they originated. The presence of nickel in the metal means it is from Bolivia on the eastern side of the Andes, because there is no nickel on the Peruvian side.
“People study trade routes by following the elements,” Notis said. “If you find something with nickel in Peru, it’s a trade object from Bolivia. At least, that’s what the assumption is.”
It is soul-stirring to hold the pieces, imagining them in the hands of the ancients.
“What’s amazing is how intricate it is for something that’s 1,000 years old,” Kratzer said, marveling at the fanged animal heads and the lids and bowls engraved with hieroglyph-like symbols.
Doolittle has X-rayed 40 pieces from a collection of about 100, so the project will go on a while longer.
That suits him.
“I was probably more excited than anyone by this,” he said. “I had to rein myself in.”