A call for caution in the analysis of lipids and other small biomolecules from archaeological contexts

Helen L Whelton, Simon Hammann*, Lucy J E Cramp, Julie Dunne, Mélanie Roffet-Salque, Richard P Evershed

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

46 Citations (Scopus)


The analysis of lipids and other biomolecules preserved in archaeological artefacts, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques, is a powerful approach which has provided unprecedented insights into the diet and cultural practices of past populations. In more recent years, the now-mature field of organic residue analysis (ORA) has entered a new phase, undertaking large scale and diachronic analyses, providing broader perspectives on the uses of pottery over both temporal and spatial scales.
However, it has become apparent from the literature that there are significant pitfalls in applying the technique, often due to inexperience or lack of knowledge, that can lead to the production of data which is essentially worthless, because it either lacks analytical rigour or a valid archaeological interpretation. This is partly because ORA sits between chemistry and archaeology and projects are sometimes conducted by researchers not sufficiently familiar in the respective other discipline. Consequently, there have been numerous examples in recent years that showed a lack of understanding of critical points in ORA. This has two serious consequences: 1. the often-wide perpetuation of false knowledge, and 2. the use of a method that is both costly and destructive of irreplaceable archaeological material, which is not compensated with useful information-gain.
Here, we address some common errors encountered either in published literature or during peer-review and discuss the most important errors and misconceptions around ORA. In particular, we discuss use of unsuitable biomarkers, contamination, poor analytical data quality, the limitations of gas chromatography (GC), GC-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and MS databases, and problems with the interpretation of ORA data. Here, we offer best practice advice and we hope that this will help, and encourage, all researchers looking to apply ORA in their studies, as we are optimistic that these pitfalls can be avoided, and the quality of published research consequently raised.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105397
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number105397
Early online date30 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd


  • Organic Residue Analys
  • Lipids
  • Pottery
  • Biomarkers
  • Mass Spectrometry


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