Museum Laboratory Recovers After Massive Fire

Research and training continues in Museu Nacional’s Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Landscape

Dr. Scheel-Ybert (far left) with students Rúbia Graciele Patzlaff, Leonardo Waisman de Azevedo and Taís Cristina Jacinto Pinheiro Capucho in their laboratory where archeology technical equipment is stored.

Dr. Scheel-Ybert (far left) with Rúbia Graciele Patzlaff, Leonardo Waisman de Azevedo and Taís Capucho.

Museu Nacional is Brazil’s largest museum of natural history and cultural heritage and the oldest scientific institution in the country. It is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Dr. Rita Scheel-Ybert oversees the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Landscape. We spoke with Dr. Scheel-Ybert about her research as well as her recent challenges from a fire that damaged much of the museum and her laboratory on September 2, 2018.

Tell us about the work performed in your laboratory:

Based on archaeological research, the main goal of the investigations linked to the lab are reconstructing past ways of life through Archaeobotany, which is the study of plant macro- and micro-remains found in archaeological context, with focus on Anthracology (charcoal analysis) and Microarchaeobotany (mostly phytoliths and starch grains). We study aspects related to plant and wood use, diet, food production, subsistence strategies, ritual practices, landscape transformation, among other paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic issues, especially regarding populations that occupied the lands of what is now the Brazilian territory since its first colonization.

Dr. Scheel-Ybert examines a charcoal sample using reflected light microscopy, aiming to identify the species from the wood anatomy.

How was your laboratory affected by the fire?

As most of our departments, the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Landscape suffered catastrophic losses. The fire destroyed all of the equipment, including microscopes used for research analysis, the library, all the archaeological samples and the three reference collections that were the basis for the archaeobotanical research: the anthracological (charcoal), the carpological (fruits and seeds, roots, leaves, and tubers), and the microbotanical (phytoliths and starch grains) collections. These collections had been built during more than two decades of research and included more than 3,000 items. They were used by many researchers from different Brazilian regions and from abroad and were among the most significant archaeobotanical reference collections of the tropics – and of the world.

The fire caused significant damage to Museu Nacional. Researchers endeavor to find any surviving artifacts.

What efforts are underway to rebuild?

The ongoing reconstruction of the museum involves different work fronts. On the one hand, employees and students of the institution are still recovering the surviving collections that were inside the building during the fire. On the other, these people are fighting for the reconstruction of their scientific collections, along with appropriate workspace and new equipment.

Since 2002 with the beginning of Anthracological studies in Brazil, ZEISS has been a partner to our research group. After the fire, it was no different. As we submitted projects and fought for financing that would enable the buying of new equipment, ZEISS loaned microscopes that allowed us the almost immediate continuity of our research. When we got the financing, we were able to re-equip the laboratory with seven state-of-the-art instruments: five light microscopes and two stereo microscopes.

Without the appropriate microscopes, our research cannot be done.

For charcoal analysis, a reflected light microscope with bright and darkfield illumination is required. Most of our analyses are made using darkfield so the illumination capacity of the microscope needs to be very high, or else – since our object is dark and most of the times dirty – we are not able to see critical characteristics.

Charcoal fragments of the species Handroanthus chrysotrichus, Bignoniaceae family. Three planes of wood: from left to right: transverse plane, tangential longitudinal plane, radial longitudinal plane. Imaged using darkfield microscopy. Image credit: Taís Capucho

Charcoal fragments of the species Handroanthus chrysotrichus (Bignoniaceae). Three sections of wood: from left to right: transverse section, tangential longitudinal section, radial longitudinal section. Imaged using reflected light darkfield microscopy. Image credit: Taís Capucho

For the micro-remains analysis, which are always prepared on slides, we need a transmitted light microscope. However, starch grains only show one of its most important and diagnostic features, the interference cross, when under polarization. Therefore, the microscope needs to be equipped with polarized light. The ZEISS team is always very present and helpful on providing the specific configurations necessary for our analysis.

Cassava starch grains (Manihot sculenta) imaged using transmitted light microscopy (left) and polarization microscopy (right). Image credit: Célia Boyadjian

What activities are you currently focused on?

The laboratory’s team remains active. We are rebuilding the modern and archaeological botanical collections and reconstituting our library. Teaching and public awareness of science programs are still happening and, with the acquisition of the equipment, we are able to pursue new and ongoing research projects, as well as provide training for students that hope to pursue careers in Archaeobotanical research.

Students and a technician at a course on anthracology and anatomy of charcoal.

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