Chemical study of triterpenoid resinous materials in archaeological findings by means of direct exposure electron ionisation mass spectrometry and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry

Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom. 2006;20(11):1787-800. doi: 10.1002/rcm.2507.


A systematic study of standard triterpenes (alpha-amyrine, oleanolic acid, betulin, lupeol, betulinic acid and lupenone) and of raw resinous materials (frankincense resin, mastic resin and birch bark pitch) was performed using direct exposure electron ionisation mass spectrometry (DE-MS) and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). DE-MS provides a mass spectral fingerprint of organic materials in a few minutes which highlights the compounds that are the main components in the sample. The application of principal component analysis (PCA) on DE-MS data in the mass ranges m/z 181-260 and m/z 331-500, corresponding to the fragmentation of triterpenoid molecules, enabled us to distinguish between different triterpenoid materials such as mastic resin, frankincense resin and birch bark pitch, and to graphically plot the resinous substances in three separate clusters, retaining 89% of the total variance. GC/MS analysis of the same materials has permitted us to elucidate in detail the molecular composition and to identify minor components and species that act as markers of the degradation undergone by the materials. The paper also reports the results for the organic residues contained in an Egyptian censer (5th-7th century AD) which was recovered in the excavation of the Necropolis of Antinoe (Egypt), and for the hafting material found on a Palaeolithic tool recovered at the site of Campitello (Arezzo, Tuscany), dating back to the Mid-Pleistocene period. Although DE-MS was found to be a fast analytical tool, it failed to give any information on the presence of less abundant compounds when applied to mixtures of different materials: only mastic resin was found in the residues from the Roman censer, whereas GC/MS analysis identified the presence of a vegetable oil from Brassicaceae seeds and Pinaceae resin. Birch bark pitch as a pure material was identified in the sample from the Palaeolithic flint flake using both procedures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Archaeology / methods*
  • Betula / chemistry
  • Boswellia / chemistry
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Pistacia / chemistry
  • Plant Bark / chemistry
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Reference Standards
  • Resins, Plant / analysis*
  • Solvents
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization
  • Triterpenes / analysis*


  • Resins, Plant
  • Solvents
  • Triterpenes
  • lupane