Preserving the Past for Our Future

Western University’s Professor Ron Martin focuses his lens on the story of our evolution.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

What we can capture with today’s photographic technology is astonishing: in an instant, we can freeze a moment in time and share it widely.

But for all the images that we produce using our cameras, there is a missing human element here. This is why preserving art is not just about archiving paintings – it’s about looking through the lens of real living people and remembering how humanity once saw the world.

Ron Martin, professor of chemistry at Western University, studies and preserves all sorts of historical material. Each of his projects looks at the deeper implications of how people lived and how their thoughts on the natural world evolved.

It turns out that we can tell a lot about what was important to an artist by looking at things as simple as use of colour. For instance, if red was the most expensive pigment, then we can look for where it was used to tease out important ideas, items, or people.

Perhaps even more personal, Martin also studies the teeth of Peruvian mummies to uncover insights into their health and diet.

Martin explains, “Most people don’t know that there’s an annual ring formed on the outside of your tooth, and nobody knows why. But the trace element distribution changes. So when we get a tooth, we can tell if a person was exposed to a disease that compromised calcium, and we can tell what trace elements they’ve been eating.”

These archives record a rich history of what was important to our ancestors, and how they lived.

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Prof. Ron Martin is a Professor Emeritus at University of Western Ontario. His lab specializes in advanced analytical techniques, especially as applied to environmental problems. These techniques include Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy, Scanning Electron Microscopy, X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy, and Synchrotron Radiation Analysis. Most recently studies have focussed on a study of plant/metal interactions including metals in tree rings (Dendroanalysis) and behaviour of metals at the plant/root interface. This work is being extended to include studies of the trace metal distribution in human hair.