Experimental explorations into the aceramic dry distillation of Betula pubescens (downy birch) bark tar


A range of experiments were conducted in an attempt to create tar from the bark of Betula pubescens (downy birch) using an aceramic dry distillation process. Fire structures based on small pits and small kiln-like mounds were explored with a focus on fire intensities and differing burn times under field-based conditions. Heat penetration presented itself as an all-important factor, and the depth of the construction of the structures and features was considered to directly correlate to the impact of the heat. Single variable experiments confirmed that the necessary reducing atmosphere was achievable despite friable soil, but that heat would not penetrate a 50- to 80-mm-deep layer of grass turf. The evolution of structures from pits towards a raised type resulted in kiln-like structures which proved more successful. Though the experiments did not successfully produce tar as a finished product, they did lead to a better understanding of the dry distillation process of the established technology of birch bark tar extraction in aceramic societies.

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We wish to thank Jens Glastrup, Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, for guidance in the chemical process of tar distillation and Sagnlandet Lejre for funding and accommodating our experiments. We would like to thank the reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Tine Schenck.

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Mesolithic Resource Group: www.mesolithic.org.uk

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Groom, P., Schenck, T. & Pedersen, G.M. Experimental explorations into the aceramic dry distillation of Betula pubescens (downy birch) bark tar. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 7, 47–58 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-013-0144-5

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  • Dry distillation
  • Betula pubescens
  • Birch bark tar
  • Middle Palaeolithic Mesolithic
  • Experimental archaeology