They radiocarbon dated it and it came out as a couple of thousand years old.You could see there was the impression of somebody's toes.Prior planned to be a "regular scientist", like her aerospace engineer father.


The conservator, however, was not angry at the result.

As the Arctic ice sheets melt, the Siberian tundra is being exposed, together with preserved mammoth tusks, which are then carved and sold as ivory antiques.

Prior planned to be a ‘‘regular scientist’’, like her aerospace engineer father.

But she became hooked on archaeology after her parents took her as a little girl to the archaeological sites of Colorado’s Mesa Verde.

But that is small fry to art collectors and dealers.

"There are people in the world that are so wealthy that they have these collections of antiquities [Prior's voice breaks into a high-pitched squeak] in their living room."Prior remembers a run of angry customers when a bunch of beautifully embroidered Chinese textiles from the warring states period (about 475-221BC) were exposed as modern.

You could see they had worn it and the straps were not there any more and you could just imagine somebody going 'I'm not wearing these one more day – I need new shoes' and flinging it to the back of the cave.

It is somebody's sweaty little footprints right there and all of a sudden, you feel like you're there 2000 years ago."These days Prior rarely gets to hold the objects her team is dating.

Often they will get photos of the bigger item to place the tiny samples in context. When Canterbury Museum radiocarbon dated one of its mummies and her sarcophagus it discovered that the coffin was much older than its contents .

Sometimes Prior will get to take the sample herself, getting buzzed up to an exclusive London showroom to remove a single fibre of an ancient textile crafted by a group of women 1500 years ago, "needles flashing, gossiping away". And when an ivory artefact submitted by an American conservator came out at 10s of thousands of years old – an impossibility for human art – Prior fretted that they had somehow contaminated the process.

[...] What is really great for antiquities is if we find bomb carbon 14 – excessive levels of C14 in what is supposed to be antique – we know with absolute certainty that that thing was made from materials that were growing after 1950."There is serious money at stake here.