Middle Palaeolithic Birch-Bark Pitch. (News & Notes)

By Grunberg, Judith M. | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Middle Palaeolithic Birch-Bark Pitch. (News & Notes)


Grunberg, Judith M., Antiquity


Chemical study of two organic pieces found at Konigsaue (51 [degrees] 49' N, 11 [degrees] 24'E) in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, has revealed that birch-bark pitch was already produced in Neanderthal times. The finds are not only the oldest birch-bark pitch known, they also demonstrate that not ceramic but birch-bark pitch is the first synthetic material of man.

The birch-bark pitches were found during the rescue excavation of a Middle Palaeolithic site between July 1963 and July 1964 in an industrially exploited lignite open-cast mine. They were embedded in two of three archaeological horizons (Konigsaue A, B and C), associated with flint artefacts of the `Central European Micoquian', the so-called Keilmessergruppen.

The two fragments are almost black, solid and morphologically resemble old tar. The surface of the fracture is brown. They were obviously kneaded to their oblong shape. The smaller fragment (HK 63:150/0) measures 2.3x1.4 cm and 0.6 cm in thickness (FIGURE 1a) and weighs 0.87 g. It was found in horizon Konigsaue B. The larger piece (HK 64:1/0) measures 2.7x2.0 cm and 1.2 cm in thickness (FIGURE 1b) having a weight of 1.38 g. It was found in horizon Konigsaue A. The second piece was obviously attached to a bifacial tool as negatives of four retouches can be seen in its central hollow part (FIGURE 1c). In addition, on one surface, the imprint of a wooden haft and on the other, a finger-print have remained (FIGURES 1d & 1b). In the publication of the site (Mania & Toepfer 1973), the excavators assumed that it was resin used as hafting material. From the beginning, however, speculations concerning the composition of the organic remains were expressed (Feustel 1973: 205-6).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In addition to fresh resin from pine- or other resin-producing trees, fossil resin called Krantzit, a variant of amber, could have been picked up in the eocene sediments at Konigsaue (Krumbiegel 1996). But the ice age hunter-gatherers could also have used a number of other naturally occurring plant and animal tissues as adhesives for fixing stone points, knives, blades etc. to hafts of wood, antler or bone (Allain & Rigaud 1989). For many years the oldest finds of `mastics' were known in association with Magdalenian artefacts found at Lascaux and Pincevent in France (Allain 1979). Only recently a Levallois flake and a scraper were discovered with traces of bitumen at the Mousterian site of Umm el Tlel in Syria (Boeda et al. 1996). In contrast to natural occurring substances, pitch and tar are man-made products, solely manufactured under the exclusion of air (`dry-distillation').

New information was now obtained by the analysis through different scientific methods (Grunberg et al. 1999). Combined gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) determined a high content of betulin in the samples from Konigsaue. Betulin is the characteristic and major component in birch-bark. The finger print was studied at the State Police Department in Magdeburg (Germany). It probably originates from the edge of a thumb. However, no more details can be given. The Middle Palaeolithic age of the two pieces was confirmed by radiocarbon dates: 43,800 [+ or -] 2100 BP (OxA-7124) for the one from layer A and 48400 [+ or -] 3700 BP (OxA-7125) for the other from layer B (Hedges et al. 1998: 229). Although the two fragments were found in different horizons, considering the standard deviation, their [sup.14]C-dates are not significantly different. The relatively young age for the late Keilmessergruppen is also confirmed by other [sup. …

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