Syrian tar used in Anglo-Saxon boat burial at Sutton Hoo

Newest study of the material discovered in 1939 inside the Anglo-Saxon graveyard at Sutton Hoo, England, identified mysterious black nuggets as bitumen, a solid form of oil, that originated in Syria.

Lumps of tar identified as bitumen from Syria (by Ars Technica)
Lumps of tar identified as bitumen from Syria (by Ars Technica)

Among the artefacts found in the mound, within the remains of a 27 meter-long Anglo-Saxon ship packed with grave goods including shields, cauldrons, jewellery, and a now-iconic iron-and-bronze helmet small lumps of bitumen were found. Until now they were thought to be pine tar, which the Anglo-Saxons would have used for waterproofing ships. But a team of scientists using techniques including mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to analyse the chemical composition of the lumps revealed their true identity.

Archive footage showing the excavation of the boat burial and impression left by the decayed wood (by Harold John Phillips via Ars Technica)
Archive footage showing the excavation of the boat burial and impression left by the decayed wood (by Harold John Phillips via Ars Technica)

Like tar, bitumen can be used for waterproofing. In the ancient world it was also used in medicines and embalming. Such usage left an archaeological record of bitumen that could been examined to look for a match. Bitumen families are a little different to oil families as they have additional chemical characteristics acquired when oil is converted into bitumen. As the experts state, the kind of bitumen used in the ancient world was formed by microbes consuming the liquid parts of oil and leaving behind mostly solid residues and the results of this microbial conversion vary depending on the location of the bitumen.

Provenance of goods from the Sutton Hoo burial (by Ars Technica)
Provenance of goods from the Sutton Hoo burial (by Ars Technica)

The distribution of the bitumen samples at the head and foot of the coffin places them close to the areas where the ivory gaming pieces in the burial were discovered, but the locations do not correlate well enough to infer an association. It is not yet known how the Anglo-Saxons used Syrian bitumen, but now the scientists have a better sense of how far the trade networks stretched in the Early Medieval world.

(after The Conversation & Ars Technica)

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