Edward V. Sayre— 1999 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology

Award Citation:

Edward V. Sayre has advanced the study of archaeology through the development of statistical evaluation techniques and the application of nuclear analytical methods to questions of provenance and trade. Sayre developed the archaeological chemistry program of the Brookhaven National Laboratory to apply neutron activation analysis to study of compositional patterning for a wide variety of material and artifactual types. This made possible a data-based, state-of-the-art study of trade networks, sourcing, and materials identification. He has published over 100 articles in the fields of archaeology, art history, conservation, and the physical chemistry of trace elements and their measurement. Some examples include his work with Phillip Kohl to establish Early Bronze Age trade networks using data from neutron activation analysis of steatite and other soft stones, studies of Aegean trade ceramics (with Maureen Kaplan and others), Sasanian silver (with Pieter Meyers), Mesoamerican jade and terracottas (with Ron Bishop), and Medieval European limestone sculpture and stained glass windows (with Lambertus van Zelst, Jacquelin Olin and Jean French).

Born in 1919, and 80 years old this year, Edward Sayre was raised in Iowa, worked on the Manhattan project from 1942 to 1945, and after the war completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University in the physical chemistry of rare earth elements. He worked at the Kodak Research Laboratory for a time, and then became a senior chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1952. His first project, with Ray Winfield Smith, was a study of the compositional categories of ancient glass, which still serves as a framework for the study of ancient glass. In 1956 he helped organize the historic meeting of archaeologists and chemists convened by Homer Thompson and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which initiated the application of nuclear methods to archaeological finds. Successful tests of neutron activation analysis led to a landmark study published in the AJA during 1957.

In addition to his duties at Brookhaven, he taught the chemistry of conservation at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, for 14 years from 1960 to 1974. With his student Heather Lechtman, Sayre tested the feasibility of the technique of neutron autoradiography and applied it to the reconstruction of artists’ working methods. With Pieter Meyers and Lambertus Van Zelst, he was the first to apply this technique to paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in particular those by Van Eyck and Rembrandt. With Lawrence Majewski he studied the mechanism of deterioration of frescoes by Giotto in Padua, Italy. Later he took an active technical role in the preservation and treatment of artifacts and frescoes when floods devastated Florence in 1965.

Sayre became Director of the Research Laboratory at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1974 until 1984. After his retirement in 1984, Sayre took on another job - that of directing and influencing archaeological and conservation research at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education. Sayre was Guggenheim Fellow at Oxford University’s Laboratory for Archaeometry and the History of Art in 1969, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the American University in Cairo in 1970, and was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s fellowship to teach at the Bundesanstalt für Materialprüfung in Berlin in 1980. In 1984 he was the recipient of the George Hevesy Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Radioanalytical Chemistry from the American Chemical Society. Last year a symposium honoring him was held at the Smithsonian Institute, with proceedings to be published shortly. He has served on the boards of editors of such publications as Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, the Journal of Archaeological Science, and Archaeometry, often for decades at a time. As an innovative scientist and successful teacher, Edward Sayre has been a role model, leading many students to conduct cutting-edge archaeological and conservation science. He has served as a critical mentor to a developing field of archaeological chemistry.

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