Scientists In The United Kingdom Are 'Fingerprinting' Stolen Rocks

Stone swipers, beware

Have you seen this rock?

Have you seen this rock?

David Jones/Flickr CC by 2.0

Rocks are just about everywhere, but in some areas of the United Kingdom, they are attractive target for thieves. The theft of stones from buildings and historic sites in the UK "has reached epidemic proportions" according to a Member of Parliament testifying about the scourge earlier this summer.

The stones being targeted are rocks that have already been cut for building, whether used for roof tiles, walls, or paths. They are typically re-used in other buildings by people looking to save some money on raw materials. Unfortunately for police and property owners, identifying a stolen rock in a lineup is a lot harder than identifying other property, like artwork or a car. "Well, officer, it was big, grey, and solid..." doesn't really get people anywhere.

And that's where science comes in. Researchers at Loughborough University are working on a way to figure out exactly where a stone comes from based on it's chemical signature.

By using a common gelatin routinely used by police to obtain fingerprints of suspects, researchers believe they can lift chemical signatures from a suspected stolen stone. Theoretically, the chemicals on the stone are unique to the geographical area the stone came from, and by analyzing the results, police could figure out the stone's former residence. The residue, made up of many different chemical markers might not tell scientists where the stone was originally from (not especially valuable information, as stones are often quarried and carted long distances before they are incorporated into buildings) but could give police the stone's last known position.

"We believe our non-invasive technique could provide a much needed link between suspected stolen stone and its original geographical location, but it is very early days" chemist Paul Kelly said in a statement.

In order for the method to really work, researchers would have to build up a database of chemical signatures across the entire country. It's a monumental task, but one that might be key to preserving monuments for the next generation.