Optical Microscopy

Examination of metallic samples or in-situ surfaces of artefacts under a metallurgical microscope can reveal much about the material, method of construction and the mechanical properties of an historic object, where even small changes in composition, heat treatment and mechanical working produce major changes in the visible crystal structure.

The method allows the gathering of a very wide range of compositional, microstructural, and even cultural information which allows higher levels of interpretation: How effective was the artefact? What access did the metal worker have to particular alloys? How did the metalworker’s skill enable him to exploit the materials to the full?


The underlying basis of the technique is that all solid metals are crystalline and may adopt a wide range of microstructures dependent on composition, mechanical working or thermal treatments. When prepared specimens are etched using appropriate reagents the crystalline structure is visible under an optical or electron microscope.

Practical considerations

The technique is dependent on the experience of the metallographer and interpretations may differ slightly between practitioners. In a museum where any sampling must be kept to a minimum it is possible that the area selected is not representative of the whole. Caution must therefore be exercised in order not to over-interpret the evidence from small samples.

Complimentary Techniques

Metallographic specimens can be further investigated by microhardness testing, which measures the resistance to indentation by a pyramidal-cut diamond. The resultant hardness value may provide an indication of the effectiveness of heat-treatments, presence of impurity elements and degree of work hardening (case study 9).

Prepared specimens are also suitable for examination using a range of microanalysis techniques, such as scanning electron microscope (SEM) based microanalysis.

Did you know?

Is newer better?

The last cast-iron British smoothbore cannon, the 68 pounder, was 8 inches (203 mm), the same calibre as the heaviest guns of King Henry VIII three hundred years earlier. Their performance was probably not very different either!

Specialist enquiries

Got Excalibur in the loft or "that arrow" from the Battle of Hastings above the fireplace?

Contact our experts to find out if you've got a historical gem or a car boot sale classic.