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Old 29th September 2006, 04:41 AM   #59
A. G. Maisey
Join Date: May 2006
Posts: 4,910

Good to see you back, Georgia.

I`m possibly not all that surprised by the results you report.

All keris that I have seen in public collections in Australia have been in a very neglected condition. There is nearly always some sort of dust, or I guess you could say "residue" , on the surface of these blades. They are dry, sad, and tending towards rust. My guess is that as the surface of the metal corrodes, it frees the arsenic, along with the ferric material, so if you take a sample from one of these neglected blades, you are going to get a positive result for arsenic.

On the other hand, in a properly stained and maintained blade, there is no residue on the blade surface. The blade is clean and smooth.

I've said it before, and since I'm not a chemist, I could well be wrong, but it is my firm belief that when we stain a blade, the arsenic combines with the ferric material and causes it to change colour. The amount of arsenic used in staining a blade is tiny, frankly, I've never been able to detect any loss of arsenic in the lime juice suspension, after a staining job is complete.

I reckon that if you allowed a gun barrel to tend towards corrosion, then sampled the dust on the gun barrel, you would probably test positive for the chemicals used in blueing of the gun barrel.

There`s another factor too that perhaps should be considered:- the natural occurence of arsenic in the material used in the blade. I remember nearly 20 years ago I queried Prof Jerzy Piaskowski`s test results that showed arsenic in his analyses, and he assured me that it was a natural component of the material, not from the staining process.

I do not know nor understand the test process you used, but if the sample involved the physical removal of surface material, it seems to me that perhaps this natural presence of arsenic could also be considered.

Please do not misunderstand what I driving at here:- I'm not knocking your work:you've carried out a legitimate test, and you have proven the presence of arsenic. However, I feel that there are some other factors that should be considered, and to my mind, foremost amongst these factors is the condition of the surface of the blade. I would suggest that in a properly maintained blade you would not be able to test for arsenic, simply because you would not be able to locate nor extract a residue.

If this is so, then perhaps your finding could be that in a badly maintained blade that displays a surface residue, that residue may be presumed to contain arsenic, and thus should be handled in an appropriate manner.

As to poisoning by arsenic, well, in early times I believe arsenic was used in very small doses as a medication. I am not suggesting that it was effective, but apparently people at one time thought it was effective for something.

Not long ago timber products were treated with arsenic to prevent rot. Workers who handled these timber products, or who applied the arsenic compounds used , had to be tested regularly for build up of arsenic in their bodies. It was absobed through the skin. I know of cases where people worked with these timber products for virtually their entire working lives, and never accumulated sufficient arsenic in their system to warrant having them removed from that particular type of work.

Along the same line. The method used to stain very high quality keris blades , and that should be used to stain royal blades, involves the person doing the staining to actually have bare hand contact for extended periods with the arsenic suspension. The old Javanese gentlemen who do this work do not get tested for build up of arsenic, and eventually they die. Usually at a fairly advanced age from something like emphysema or a traffic accident.

Still, the Land of Oz is not Jawa, and we do tend to be rather sensitive on workplace safety. I would suggest that all curators and conservators should be paid a special loading when required to handle keris and similar weapons. Apart from the possible metaphysical danger, we now know that there is arsenic present in the workplace, and it would be unreasonable to expect anybody to take any level of risk with this hazardous chemical, unless appropriately compensated.

I'm looking forward to seeing your completed paper.

How far along are you?
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