Birch bark tar in early Medieval England: continuity of tradition or technological revival? 

Rebecca J. Stacey, Julie B. Dunne, Sue Brunning, Thibaut Devièse , Richard Mortimer, Stuart Ladd, Keith Parfitt, Richard Evershed, Ian Bull

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
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Birch bark tar is a manufactured product with a history of production and use that reaches back to the Palaeolithic. Its sticky, water resistant and biocidal properties mean that it has a wide range of applications, for example, as a multipurpose adhesive, sealant and in medicine. Archaeological evidence for birch bark tar in the old world covers a broad geographic range from the UK to the Baltic and from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia. In the east and north of this range there is continuity of use to modern times but in western Europe and the British Isles the use of birch bark tar has generally been viewed as limited to prehistory, with gradual displacement by pine tars during the Roman period.

Here, we report new finds of birch bark tar from two early Medieval sites in the east of England. Analysis by HT-GC/MS to identify the tars also revealed fatty material, possibly added to modify the tar. The different contexts of the finds point to diverse applications of the material: in one case perhaps a medicine, the other associated with a ceramic container, possibly used for processing the tar. The results present the first identification of birch bark tar from early Medieval archaeological contexts in the UK. Together they indicate a later period of use for birch bark tar in the UK than has been previously observed and raise the question of whether this indicates evidence of a longer continuity of use than hitherto recognised or a later reintroduction of the technology in the Medieval period, in which case the similarities between the find sites, both early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries with comparable assemblages of grave goods, may be significant.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102118
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date18 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020


  • birch bark tar
  • early Medieva
  • lipids
  • betulin

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