Some History About the Production of Tar

This article contains a brief overview of some of the history of tar production.

This article was sponsored by the Ctruth Patron Seppo Pakonen. Thank you Seppo Pakonen for your support and for choosing this topic. I enjoyed writing this article and I look forward to any future requests you have. The complete list of Ctruth Patron sponsored content.

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“Until recently, little attention had been paid to prehistoric tar-production methods.” – Andreas Hennius, Viking Age tar production and outland exploitation (2018)

Merriam-Webster defined tar on July 8th, 2020 as:

Tar is closely related to bitumen, but the key difference is that tar is artificially distilled while bitumen can occur naturally [1]. There are three main types of tar: wood tar, coal tar, and mineral tar. Wood tar is commonly used to preserve wood. Coal tar is commonly used to pave roads. Mineral tar is commonly used to bind construction items together [2]. Other types of tars include shale tar and petroleum tar [5].

Pine tar, a type of wood tar, has been used for over 2000 years in the treatment of skin conditions due to its antiseptic and soothing properties. In contrast, coal tar has been in production for about 100 years. The first person that we know of that described the medicinal use of pine tar was Hippocrates (c.460-370 BC) [5]. Birch bark tar, another type of wood tar, is believed to have been used “from the UK to the Baltic and from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia” with dates reaching back into the paleolithic period. It appears that there has been continual use of birch bark tar in the northern and eastern regions from prehistoric times to modern times, while in the use of it is restricted to only prehistoric times for the British Isles and in western Europe. [7].

“By 1725, four fifths of the tar and pitch used in England came from the American colonies…” – Burke, James, Connections. Boston: Little Brown and Company: 1978. 195.

The reason for American colonies becoming the main suppliers for tar and pitch for the English was due to the wars between Russia and Sweden, where around 1700 Russia took over large parts of Sweden and forced the English to find new suppliers for their tar.

Mariners have reportedly been using wood tar for at least 600 years to preserve wood and rigging for ships. Small land owners in northern Scandinavia turned tar into a cash crop, and eventually it made its way to larger settlements to be distributed on an even larger scale [3]. It’s likely that the use of tar for maritime activities during the Viking Age was extensive.

The King of Sweden in 1648 granted the NorrlSndska TjSrkompaniet (The Wood Tar Company of North Sweden) the privilege to be the sole tar exporters in the country. Barrels containing tar were often marked by burning the name of the city in which they were produced onto the barrel. Barrels from Umea had Umea burned onto them, barrels from Lulea had Lulea burned onto them, and so on and so forth. The term “Stockholm Tar” now means “a high quality light colored wood tar” due to the Stockholm, the capital of Sweden today, producing the highest quality tar compared to all other tars. Reportedly at one point in history, the best wood tars from Russia and Finland were considered to be worse than the worst Swedish wood tars, which was their Haparanda tar. [3]. After 1900, the exporters at Umea, Lulea, and Skelleftea became independent from Stockholm [4].

Left side is an image of one of the excavated features. Right side is a drawing of how tar is made with it. Image from [6].

The early 2000s is when some archaeological excavations took place in the Uppland province of eastern-central Sweden that revealed a number of “funnel-shaped pit features” which were about one metre in diameter. These excavations took place so that a new highway could be constructed. The image above shows how these features produced tar. The wood is burned and the tar is collected at the bottom of the pit feature. There were 38 radiocarbon dates which were obtained from the excavations. The majority of them date to the Roman Iron Age (AD 100–400). [6].

There were more pit features discovered to the north of the first ones during the same highway project. These northern ones were sometimes ten times larger than the southern ones. There were 7 radiocarbon dates obtained from the northern find. They were dated to around 885-1270 [6].

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References:

[1] – http://www.differencebetween.net/technology/industrial/difference-between-bitumen-and-tar/#:~:text=Tar%20is%20a%20viscous%20black%20liquid%20which%20is,the%20process%20of%20destructive%20distillation.&text=Bitumen%20can%20be%20naturally%20occurring,generally%20always%20a%20viscous%20liquid.

[2] – https://limitlesspavingandconcrete.com/asphalt-tar-bitumen/#:~:text=Tar%20typically%20comes%20in%20three,of%20tar%20has%20different%20qualities.

[3] – https://maritime.org/conf/conf-kaye-tar.htm

[4] – Naval Stores; History, Production, Distribution and Consumption

[5] – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5434829/

[6] – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/viking-age-tar-production-and-outland-exploitation/F5FBC37E7F0124DBD30D550E98C42AEB/core-reader

[7] – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X19303827

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