Revealing Iberian Woodcraft: Conserved Wooden Artefacts from South-East Spain

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Introduction

The assemblage of 61 wooden artefacts presented in this paper is a representative sample of the vast quantity of waterlogged wood recovered from six wells at the site of Tossal de les Basses (south-east Spain) (Rosser & Fuentes 2008). These pieces, dated mainly to the Iberian period (fourth century BC), are of great interest as they demonstrate the use of wood as a raw material for tools, personal objects and furniture--a role which is significant but rarely seen. It is likely that, from deep in prehistoric times, many domestic, artisanal or ritual tools were made in perishable materials such as wood (Petrequin 1989; Bosch et al. 2000; Gerritsen 2003; Louwe Kooijmans & Kooistra 2006; Pillonel 2007). However, in temperate climates these materials are preserved only under specific conditions (Perini 1990; Lull et al. 1999; Bosch et al. 2000; Capretti et al. 2008; Figueiral et al. 2008). It is therefore often necessary to develop interpretation by comparison with written, iconographic and ethnographic sources or by reference to associated artefacts, e.g. woodworking tools. Wooden objects in Mediterranean archaeological contexts usually owe their preservation to carbonisation, from which it is only occasionally possible to recognise wooden tools, household equipment or other pieces of furniture among the charcoal fragments (Mols 1999), or to waterlogging.

The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of an interest in wooden artefacts and architecture, with the discovery of important collections from the lake sites in the Alps (Marion 1878; Bourgeat 1890; Ault de Mesnil & Capitan 1898 among others). The study of waterlogged wooden objects may provide a wide range of information, not only inherent to the artefacts themselves, but also to their chrono-cultural and environmental context. Modern analysis entails the botanical identification of the trees and their provenance (native or exotic), which has implications for exchange/trading and the woodworking technology and tools. Technical analysis of the wooden pieces allows the definition of forestry practice, carpentry and applications in craft, household equipment and architecture.

Method

Five of the wells at Tossal de les Basses (4032, 4048, 4093, 4112, 4114) are dated to the Iberian period, in the first half of the fourth century BC while the sixth (4047) is dated to the Late Republican/Early Empire (between the end of the first century BC and the beginning of the first century AD). All the objects reported and illustrated here are from the Iberian period (Table 1), with the exception of a box (4047-89-100) and eight pieces of worked timber (not illustrated) which are Roman (Table 2). The wells (Figure 1) have a cylindrical section, with a diameter of up to 2.5m and a depth of up to 12m (Rosser & Fuentes 2008). They were dug to supply water to the Iberian village and then later to two Republican villae located nearby. When the wells were exhausted, they gradually silted up, and were used to dump rubbish.

The artefacts were preserved in waterlogged, anoxic sediments below the water table, and thus spared microbiological degradation. Once extracted from its water-saturated deposits, waterlogged wood requires special methods of management, analysis and conservation in order to preserve the shape, the anatomical structure and the surface detail. This consists in storing the pieces and carrying out the whole analytical process in a humid, antibacterial environment (Leffy 1990: 14; Bosch et al. 2000: 38; Chabal & Feugere 2005: 139). Although a controlled drying with a low risk of collapse can be applied to dense and well preserved woods (Jensen & Gregory 2006), we preferred to preserve and handle the waterlogged wooden artefacts in humid conditions in order to keep a sterile micro-environment that would impede fungal activity.

Macroscopic analysis included the measurement of all dimensions, a morphological description of the pieces and the identification of any working traces on the surface with regard to the direction of the grain. …