Testing by UMaine professor, student aids feds in case of stolen emeralds

Bangor Daily News excerpt

Stolen EmeraldsAn international criminal. Stolen emeralds. A secret government mission. It’s all very exciting, and not the sort of action that usually makes its way to quiet Orono.

University of Maine physics professor C. Thomas Hess and one of his students, however, found themselves embroiled with the U.S. Department of State in April as it closed a case of stolen treasure. Hess conducted testing, at the request of the State Department, on 14 emerald necklace pieces and an emerald frog figurine that were part of a collection of more than 60 pre-Columbian artifacts seized in 2005 that were returned Tuesday to the Colombian government, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Florida law enforcement officials discovered many of the artifacts in 2005 during the execution of three federal search warrants at various South Florida locations.

For more information on “The case of the stolen emeralds”, click here. (from UMaineToday Insights section, Vol. 8, Issue 5 – November-December 2008).

November/December 2008

The case of the stolen emeralds

In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the return to the Colombian government of more than 60 Precolumbian artifacts that were seized in Florida in 2005. The recovered artifacts that had been smuggled into the United States included more than a dozen emerald pieces that were studied by University of Maine physicists March 18 after they were brought to campus by ICE officers to determine the gems’ trace elements.

Earlier this year, Professor of Physics C.T. Hess was contacted by the State Department after a federal official found reference to a research paper published in 1998 in the journal Archaeology. In the paper, Hess and two coauthors – then Hudson Museum director Stephen Whittington and gemologist James Vose of Lincoln – detailed the use of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to determine the trace elements in another Precolumbian artifact known as “the emerald man,” a carved figurine that is part of the Palmer Collection in the Hudson Museum.

After a day of testing in his lab this spring, Hess and his students – Joshua Wright, Douglas Cahl and Anna Schliep – determined that the trace elements in the confiscated emeralds revealed that they were mined from one source. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy helps researchers determine the chemical components in samples, providing clues to geological origins.

The research results on the now repatriated emeralds – 14 stones with drilled holes for what was probably a necklace, and a tiny carved frog figurine – were reported in a senior thesis in April by Joshua Wright.