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Thin-section petrography is a technique used to examine small samples of stone, ceramics, or other mineral-containing materials under a polarized light microscope in order to characterize the material and/or fabrication technology and to answer a wide range of questions relevant to issues in historic preservation, conservation, archaeology, or anthropology.

The tutorial provides a free interactive web-accessible workshop on thin-section petrography of cultural materials. It includes eleven illustrated chapters with text and audio background, each ending with self-quizzes. These chapters begin with the basics of polarized light microscopy. An introduction explains what petrographic thin sections are and how they are made, then chapters continue on plane polarized light, crossed polarized light, and identifying common rock-forming minerals. The next seven chapters explore how thin-section petrography can be used to better understand and interpret cultural materials. Three chapters focus on stone (igneous, including both volcanic and plutonic; sedimentary, including both detrital and chemically precipitated; and metamorphic). Another three chapters focus on pottery (looking at low-fired pottery; high-fired pottery; and identifying pottery fabrication and decoration methods). The last chapter incorporates other (non-pottery) ceramic materials such as brick and tile, and unfired clay materials such as cuneiform tablets, clay sculptures, and clay core materials inside bronzes.

image-websiteExamples of the use of digital image analysis to replace traditional methods for obtaining quantitative data are incorporated where appropriate. Use of the opensource Python programming language-based Ren’Py visual novel engine permits the tutorial to be freely downloaded by users with files readable in Windows, Mac, or Linux platforms.

UPDATE: The URL for the thin-section petrography tutorial has changed.  You can download and view the tutorial on the Center for Historic Architecture and Design website at

This tutorial was made possible through Grant MT-2210-09-NC-11 from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT).

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119