You are on page 1of 3

Wood on the foreshore

When dealing with waterlogged wood, there are two documents that you will find very helpful: The
Museum of London Archaeological Site Manual (Spence 1994) and the English Heritage Guidelines
for dealing with Waterlogged Wood (Brunning 1996).

The MoLAS site Manual has an excellent section on recording waterlogged wood, including detailed
instructions on how to fill in a standard MoLAS Timber Recording Sheet. Of particular interest are the
sections on conversion (also called splitting and cleaving), the terminology for joints, and sub-sampling
strategies to deal with wattle work structures.

Given the right conditions, it is possible for wood to survive in the ground for thousands of years. In
the UK, this will generally be due to either charring of waterlogging. Many of you will be familiar with
the small (and occasionally large) fragments of charcoal that are ubiquitous in archaeological deposits.
Although charred wood is a valuable source of data, we will be concentrating on waterlogged wood – a
class of material you are much more likely to encounter on the foreshore.

Waterlogged wood generally survives due to the formation of a burial environment in which little or no
oxygen is present (an anoxic burial environment). The lack of oxygen prevents the normal suite of
oxygen metabolising microbes from breaking the wood down. However, decay still takes place, albeit
at a much slower rate, as some microbes can still function in an anoxic environment.

Waterlogged wood survives due to its unique burial environment. If this environment is disturbed or
changed the wood is at risk of decaying, sometimes at a significant rate. Any ancient wood you see on
the foreshore is likely to have been revealed by the mechanical action of the river scouring the
protective deposits away. The wood will then be at risk from two separate factors. Drying out:
Waterlogged wood is likely to have a water content in the region of 20-80%. Microbial and water
action will, over time, remove some or all of the cellulose (which provides wood with its elasticity)
often leaving only a brittle lignin structure, filled with water. This 'lignin sponge' can be very heavy and
brittle. If the wood is allowed to dry out it will often crack and fall to pieces, sometimes very quickly.
This problem can be counteracted to some extent by keeping the wood wet.

The wood is also at risk from microbial decay. Once the wood is exposed to the air, even if it is
submerged in water, there will be oxygen present. This will allow microbes to start breaking down the
wood. If the wood is already in an advanced state of decay, possibly just a 'lignin sponge', microbes can
break the remaining structure down surprisingly quickly. The only way to mitigate against microbial
decay is to conserve the wood, generally by a process of PEG impregnation (to stabilise the cellular
structure) and freeze drying (to remove excess moisture).

Although it seems a silly thing to say, it is important to remember that wood comes from trees! Any
wood you encounter on the foreshore, regardless of its antiquity, will have started out as part of a tree.
The tree it came from will have grown, looked and acted in the same way as the trees you see around
you today. When the tree was being turned into products – timbers for people to use, the wood will
have acted the same in the past as it would today. Trees have roots at the bottom (to collect nutrients)
and leaves at the top (to collect sunlight). In between there is a trunk, and branches (or limbs) to hold
the leaves high in the air, so they can collect more sunlight. People tend to utilise the trunks and the
limbs of trees to make useful timbers.

If you look at the cross section of a trunk or limb, you will see several features (see below, taken from
Spence 1994).

In the centre of the tree is the pith. This is the oldest, hardest part of the tree. This is surrounded by the
heartwood, which forms the bulk of the tree. The heartwood is dead, but strong and hard, providing the
tree with the strength it needs to stay upright. Towards the edge of the tree is the sapwood. This is the
living layer around the edge of the tree. The nutrients and sap travel up and down the tree in conduits or
vessels in the sapwood. The sapwood is surrounded by the bark. This hard, outer layer protects the tree.
Trees grow in a yearly cycle, laying down an annual growth ring every year. These concentric rings
start around the pith and are present throughout the heartwood and the sapwood. By counting the
annual rings, you can see how many years the tree grew for. There is also a feature called a 'ray'. Rays
appear much like the spokes on a bicycle, traveling in a straight line from the outside (bark) to the
middle (pith) of the tree.

Woodworking is a reductive technology. People use a variety tools and techniques to break trees up into
usable products. This results in products, such as large timbers and waste, such as wood chips and off-
cuts. When encountering a timber, it is important to try and understand if it has been worked, and if so,
how. There are several issues to address. Has the timber been converted, either by sawing or cleaving
(see below from (Spence 1994).

Is there any evidence of jointing? Is the bark intact? Can you see any tool facets (the smooth surfaces
an edged tool such as an axe leaves when passing through a timber)? Recording the woodworking
technology helps us to understand how the timber has been worked and may also offer other
information, such as evidence for re-use. Drawing annotated, measured sketches and taking photos can
help to complement the written record.

As well as recording the woodworking, we are also interested in the wood the timber is made from.
What species of tree is it from? What part of a tree is it – can we see side branches or knots, is it
straight grained or twisted? Has it been attacked by any type of beetle or other animal? Many of these
issues can be understood by careful visual inspection and recording. However, species identification
often has to be carried out in a laboratory, under a microscope. If you are trained, it is sometimes
possible to identify oak using a hand lens. However, the majority of items need to be sub-sampled to
allow identification. Species ID samples should be a around 30-50mm cubed. If the samples are from
waterlogged wood, they should be packed into bags filled with water and clearly labeled. If material is
in poor condition, you may have to take a larger sample.

Wood also has a great potential for dating. Dendrochronology (tree ring dating) can provide very
accurate and cost effective dates. In order for a timber to be suitable for dendrochronology, it needs to
fulfill several criteria. It must be oak, it should have more than 50 growth rings and it should have the
bark edge intact.

As wood was once a part of a living tree, it is suitable for radiocarbon (C14) dating. Taking samples for
C14 dating from any material is often more complex than it appears. As you are C14 dating an item,
but generally want to use this information to date a structure or site, there are many factors to consider.
There are far too many to discuss here. However, when sampling wood a quick check list is worth
considering. Is the wood worked (as opposed to naturally accumulated debris), are you SURE it is part
of the context / structure / site you wish to date? Remember that posts can be pushed into older
deposits, waste can be discarded, timbers can be re-used and roots can grow deep into the ground. How
long was the item growing for? A small piece of roundwood will only have been growing for a few
years. However, the centre of a big log or plank may have been growing 50 or even a hundred years
before the tree was cut down. It is therefore a good idea to select either small diameter roundwood or
the sapwood of larger items for radiocarbon dating.


BRUNNING R, 1996. Guidelines on the recording, sampling and curation of waterlogged wood. English Heritage
SPENCE C, (ED.) 1994. Archaeological Site Manual, 3rd edition. Museum of London.