DEEP INSIDE EARTH, at the outer core, electric currents circulate through molten metal, giving rise to the magnetic field that envelops our planet. No doubt because those magnetohydrodynamic currents are complex and unpredictable, the Earth’s magnetic poles shift and even flip as time goes by. The changes can be re-corded in iron-oxide-bearing minerals on the Earth’s surface. At the moment those magnetic minerals solidify, the iron oxides in them are permanently frozen in the direction the geomagnetic field is pointing at that time. (Read that again)

Where can such minerals be found? Among other places, in the red paint of certain pre-Columbian murals in Mexico. Avto Goguitchaichvili, a geophysicist at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, in Mexico City, and several colleagues have determined that the red pigments in murals at four Mexican archaeological sites hold iron-oxide-bearing hematite and magnetite, and thus exhibit “remnant magnetism.” Well-dated sites in Europe and the southwestern United States have already provided a 4,000-year historical record of shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field, and so investigators can now compare the remnant magnetism of the less well-dated New World sites with the historical record and determine precisely when a mural was created. (“Pre-Columbian mural paintings from Mesoamerica as geomagnetic field recorders,”


Geophysical Research Letters

                                                                                  31:L1 2607, June 22, 2004)

                                                                                                      —T.J. Kelleher

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