Conservation Highlights: XRF'ing in the Community

Elise shares our recent experiences out and about in the community, assisting with identifying elemental composition of other collections

Author: Elise Carroll, Conservator

Arsenic hat box from NCMM
Testing the hat and hat box from GOAM

X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) is a tool we use to identify an object’s composition. XRF works by using the properties of light in the form of X-rays to determine elemental makeup. When used in conservation, it can help guide conservation plans and treatments, but it can also be a tool to aid in the safe handling of a stable object. Previously, in 2020 we posted about working with ECU’s Joyner Library on identifying books in their collection which may not be safe to handle without proper precautions. This year we have worked with two other institutions for similar reasons!

In January, our staff made the trip to the North Carolina Maritime Museum (NCMM) at Hatteras, also called the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (GOAM) to assist our friends with identifying whether or not certain objects needed extra precautions when moving and caring for the items. Working with the NCMM Conservator and GOAM staff, we isolated those few suspected objects that may need additional care and tested them for arsenic, mercury, and other harmful elements. We ran tests on a black felt chapeau bras naval officer’s cap, that is stored in a suspicious green hat box.

If you have read our blogs in the past, we are suspicious of this brilliant and beautiful color of green because it frequently contains arsenic in the compound (copper acetoarsenite). This compound produces a saturated hue of green and led to the rise of a popular pigment called Paris Green to be used to dye fabrics, papers, and book cloths. The hat, lined with beaver fur for warmth, tested positive for a trace amount of mercury. The hat box, as beautiful as it is, also tested positive for copper and arsenic, confirming it as Paris Green.

In March we worked with Appalachian State University’s Belk Library and East Carolina University’s Joyner Library staff. We were able to continue assisting with the identification of collections in the library that may contain any harmful materials. We were also able to help identify metals for conservation for objects within ECU’s library collection. We were fortunate enough to be able to test books, album covers, and sports memorabilia to see the elemental composition. We really enjoy being able to work with various colleagues across the state to help with other collections, solve problems, and answer questions!

Suggested Reading:
Poison Book Project. 2023. Accessed June 13, 2023:

Hat and hatbox in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum collection. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, courtesy of NCMM/GOAM.

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