metalworking experiment
Raking charcoal from an experimental iron smelting furnace © Historic England
Raking charcoal from an experimental iron smelting furnace © Historic England

Materials Science

We conduct and commission scientific research to investigate heritage materials from archaeological and maritime sites, collections, and historical buildings. We use scientific techniques to work out how, where, when and why different objects were made in the past, and to interpret technological waste products. We also evaluate the state of preservation of artefacts and previous conservation procedures, and we study and test innovative conservation treatments.

Our research is available online through the Historic England Reports Series, and in site reports and journals. We provide advice on good practice, and have published guidance on:

Analytical equipment

The scientific equipment in our laboratory includes:

  • Scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive spectrometer (SEM-EDS)
  • Bench-top micro-X-ray Fluorescence spectrometer (μ-XRF)
  • Handheld portable X-ray Fluorescence spectrometer (pXRF)
  • X-ray diffractometer (XRD)
  • Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy

Reference collections

We hold several thousand samples, mainly of glass and metal artefacts and production waste, from the archaeological sites, wrecks and collections featured in our reports and publications. This research collection is available for study by prior arrangement.

We also hold reference collections of waste from glass and metal production, refining and working, which are used for teaching and training.

Who we are

Sarah Paynter

Senior Materials Scientist

Sarah is a materials scientist specialising in heritage materials from the Bronze Age to the present day, particularly glass, metals, ceramics, pigments, and industrial waste products. She works mainly on the heritage of the UK, but has also studied material from Continental Europe, Egypt and the Near East. She is an Honorary Research Fellow with the University of Sheffield.

Contact Sarah Paynter

Francesca Gherardi

Materials Scientist

Francesca is a materials scientist with expertise in heritage science, analysis of artworks and buildings, and conservation treatment strategy development. She performs scientific analysis of both organic (resin, gums, waxes, binding media, textiles) and inorganic (building materials, glass, metal, pigments) materials, to determine their composition and state of preservation. She is a member of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC).

Contact Francesca Gherardi

We have worked with special interest groups such as:

Research and Selected Publications

Glassmaking and recycling

Paynter, S 2008 ‘Experiments in the reconstruction of Roman wood-fired glassworking furnaces: waste products and their formation processes’, Journal of Glass Studies 50, 271–290

Farrelly, J, O’Brien, C, Paynter, S, and Willmott, H 2014 'Excavation of an early 17th-century glassmaking site at Glasshouse, Shinrone, Co. Offaly, Ireland', Post-Medieval Archaeology 48(1), 45–89

Paynter, S and Jackson, C M 2016 ‘Re-used roman rubbish: a thousand years of recycling glass’, Post-Classical Archaeologies 6, 31–52


Gherardi, F, Colombo, A, Goidanich, S, Toniolo, L 2017 ‘On-site monitoring of the performance of innovative treatments for marble conservation in architectural heritage’, Heritage Science, 5(4)

Gherardi, F, Goidanich, S, Dal Santo, V, Toniolo L, 2018 ‘Layered nano-TiO2 based treatments for the maintenance of natural stones in historical architecture’, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 57, 1 – 5

Gherardi, F, Otero, J, Blakeley, R, Colston, B 2020 ‘Application of nanolimes for the consolidation of limestone from the Medieval Bishop's Palace, Lincoln, UK’, Studies in Conservation


Gherardi, F, Turyanska, L, Ferrari, E, Weston, N, Fay, M, Colston, B 2019 ‘Immobilized enzymes on gold nanoparticles: from enhanced stability to cleaning of heritage textiles’, ACS Applied Bio Materials, 2(11), 5136-5143


Paynter S 2006, ‘Regional variations in bloomery smelting slag of the Iron Age and Romano-British periods’, Archaeometry 48(2), 271–292


Paynter, S, Rollo, L and McSloy, E 2009 'Made in the Nene Valley? Identifying the origins of mortaria using ICP analysis', Journal of Archaeological Science 36(7), 1390–1399


Artesani, A, Gherardi, F, Nevin, A, Valentini, G, Comelli, D 2017 ‘A photoluminescence study of the changes induced in the zinc white pigment by formation of zinc complexes’, Materials, 10, 340

Further reports

You can search for more materials science reports in the Historic England Research Report Series Database.

Search the Database