Competing English, Spanish, and French alabaster trade in Europe over five centuries as evidenced by isotope fingerprinting [Anthropology]
A lack of written sources is a serious obstacle in the reconstruction of the medieval trade of art and art materials, and in the identification of artists, workshop locations, and trade routes. We use the isotopes of sulfur, oxygen, and strontium (S, O, Sr) present in gypsum alabaster to unambiguously link ancient European source quarries and areas to alabaster artworks produced over five centuries (12th–17th) held by the Louvre museum in Paris and other European and American collections. Three principal alabaster production areas are identified, in central England, northern Spain, and a major, long-lived but little-documented alabaster trade radiating from the French Alps. The related trade routes are mostly fluvial, although terrestrial transport crossing the major river basin borders is also confirmed by historical sources. Our study also identifies recent artwork restoration using Italian alabaster and provides a robust geochemical framework for provenancing, including recognition of restoration and forgeries.