Shedding light on the past is a hackneyed phrase, but in Ann Wintle’s case it is true. Literally.

Professor Ann Wintle is a geophysicist and a pioneer in the field of luminescence dating – a technique that has revolutionized our ability to find out how old things are, or when things – like past climate change – happened.

Anything younger than 1 million years which contains quartz or feldspar is potentially datable – from pottery and bricks (where the time of firing can be dated), to sands lain down by glaciers, or in ancient dunes and beaches, or caught up in sediments in caves (where the date that the sediment last saw sunlight – i.e. was buried – is calculated).

Luminescence dating harnesses our understanding of how electrons behave when exposed to radiation, and applies this to archaeological and geological questions. It’s a technique that can help us answer questions relevant to human history and our changing climate, and Ann Wintle has been at the forefront of its development since her 1974 PhD research into thermoluminescence dating at the newly opened Research Laboratory in Archaeology and the History of Art, Oxford University.

Ann Wintle studied Physics at the University of Sussex (Class of 69), but her first love was archaeology (she credits her mother and Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s TV and radio programmes). An inspirational physics teacher shifted her academic focus, but she never lost her archeological leanings, volunteering at a local excavation during her undergraduate days. She was finally able to combine her interest in applied physics and her love of archaeology in her undergraduate dissertation on the application of science to archaeological problems. This led directly to her PhD research at Oxford, and onwards to a career marked by achievement, awards and the setting up of the NERC luminescence dating facility at Aberystwyth. Wintle has helped to improve both the precision of OSL and the maximum age the technique is able to reliably date (well beyond the limits of carbon dating).

For more info on the science and application of luminescence dating, see here (pdf)

Written by @ToriHerridge, With thanks to Paul Merchant at the British Library for telling us about the Oral Histories project (see his postscript below)


Post-script by Paul Merchant, British Library

Ann Wintle’s life story can be heard in full here (the source for this post). Since 2009 ‘An Oral History of British Science’, led by National Life Stories at the British Library, has conducted long life-story interviews with scientists and their assistants.  Other TrowelBlazers featured alongside Ann Wintle are:

* Geologist Janet Thomson, the first female scientist allowed by the British Antarctic Survey to conduct fieldwork in Antarctica (in 1985!).  Janet’s work in mapping was central to early estimates of Antarctic melting.

* Marine geophysicist Carol Williams: the first geophysicist to work on Royal Research Ship Discovery, in 1966. Carol contributed to the revelation of plate tectonics.

* Physicist Mary Almond, whose measurements of the magnetism of rocks in the 1950s were used in early plots of the movement of Britain in relation to the poles.

Ann and the other three scientists mentioned were interviewed by Dr Paul Merchant – if you want to know more email paul.merchan[at]

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