Birch pitch

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Birch pitch made in a one-pot process, consisting of tar and ashed bark.

Birch pitch is a pitch and thus a black, tar-like residue of a distillation , which has been obtained from the birch bark and has been used as a versatile adhesive (especially for stockmaking ) since prehistoric times . Birch tar is a preliminary stage in the distillation of birch pitch .

It was also used to seal canoes and ships .

Archaeological evidence from the Stone Age

One of Ötzi's arrowheads that was attached to the shaft with birch pitch.

Back in the 1960s, two pieces of pitch dating to the Middle Paleolithic were discovered during excavations at the Königsaue site near Aschersleben / Saxony-Anhalt . The geological age of the find layers was given as at least 80,000 years. Instead, two accelerator data from Oxford for the pitch returned values ​​of 43,800 ± 2,100  BP and 48,400 ± 3,700 BP.

Organic residues were identified on a total of 83 flint tools from a Middle Paleolithic site near Inden / Altdorf in the Rhenish lignite region, which dates to the Eem warm period around 120,000 years ago. Using a combination of optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), the residues were determined as birch pitch, the structures of which can be seen in the SEM of the samples and the EDX spectra can be compared very well with remains on Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts and experimentally generated birch pitch . The same method was about 30,000 years old, prick from the Aurignacian -Fundstelle Les Vachons in France identified as geschäftete with birch pitch projectile points.

By far the oldest evidence of birch pitch production and use comes from Campitello in Italy (upper Arno valley ). These are two stone artifacts with adhering birch pitch, which were dated before MIS 6 ( Marine Isotope Stage ) and thus to over 200,000 years before today.

Birch pitch was found at numerous camps and settlement areas from the Mesolithic (around 9600 to 5500/4500 BC) and Neolithic (around 5500 to 2200 BC). In this case, if scuff remains in the order of magnitude of a few milligrams are found, an analysis can be carried out using gas chromatography , whereby the betulin detection allows the material to be clearly assigned as birch pitch. Birch pitch can be described as the first systematically produced plastic of mankind.

The Copper Age man from Tisenjoch, also called Ötzi , who lived between 3359 and 3105 BC. BC and was found as a glacier mummy in modern times, the tips of flint were attached to the arrow shafts from the branches of the woolly snowball using plant fibers and birch pitch.

In other regions that do not have birch trees, people used other plants with similar properties to make pitch. Cabeza de Vaca describes in his book The Shipwrecks of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca that members of his expedition were able to produce pitch from the trees of the subtropics. With it they sealed the self-built boats with which they sailed from Florida along the coast to Texas in 1528.

Simple production of birch pitch - history of the technology

Tests have shown that small amounts of usable birch pitch can be produced inside a fireplace without the aid of a ceramic vessel. Also akeramische Stone Age cultures were prepared in such sufficient quantities of birch pitch.

As researchers from the University of Leiden explain, the Neanderthals already had various options for producing birch pitch. They also found that the temperature range in which birch pitch can be produced is between 200 and 500 ° C and could therefore be achieved without specific temperature control by Stone Age fireplaces. More recent studies from 2019, however, came to the conclusion that usable quantities of birch pitch can be produced by burning birch bark near stone or bone surfaces (condensation method). This very simple technique can therefore (currently) not be ruled out as the origin of the birch pitch finds from this time. In any case, the condensation method is believed to be the technique that led to the discovery of birch pitch - because it could have happened purely by chance.

Later methods of making birch pitch

Modern experimental set-up for the production of birch pitch in a one-pot process.

Chemical investigations and experiments have shown that birch pitch was produced in the Middle Ages by a charring process, more precisely by a so-called dry distillation ( pyrolysis ).

In the experiments under laboratory conditions, the raw material birch bark was heated to a relatively constant temperature between 340 and 400 ° C in an airtight container (glass retort). In the process, the birch bark (in the airtight container) almost completely smoldered first into birch tar and a few hours later (in the open container) into birch pitch.


Birch pitch or birch tar was a common all-purpose adhesive in the Stone Age . It was mainly used to stock tools and weapons and has been preserved in the form of black marks on devices such as arrowheads, arrow shafts, knives and other tools. For this purpose, the pitch was softened by heat and made workable. It was also used to mend broken ceramics and probably also to seal containers made of organic materials (wood, bark or similar). Finally, dental prints on lumps of birch tar show that birch pitch was chewed. There is evidence of, for example, the Mesolithic Star Carr site or the Altscherbitz ceramic fountain . It is unknown whether this was done for dental care or chewing gum as a luxury product . An alternative explanation could be that birch pitch has been softened in this way before final processing. However, this can already be achieved by heating.


  • Jürgen Weiner: Practical experiments on the production and use of birch pitch. In: Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt , Volume 18, No. 4, 1988, pp. 329–334.
  • Jürgen Weiner: Where are the retorts? Considerations for the production of birch pitch in the Neolithic. In: Acta Praehistorica et Archaeologica , Volume 23, 1991, pp. 15-19.
  • Jürgen Weiner: European Pre- and Protohistoric tar and pitch: A contribution to the history of research 1720-1999. In: Acta Archaeometrica. Volume 1, Coburg 1999, pp. 1-109.
  • Jürgen Weiner: Another Word on Pitch. Some Comments on a "Sticky Issue" from Old Europe. In: Bulletin of Primitive Technology , Volume 29, Issue 1, 2005, pp. 20-27.
  • Jürgen Weiner: The oldest human plastic: birch pitch. In: T. Otten, J. Kunow, MM Rind, M. Trier (eds.) Revolution Neolithic. Writings on the preservation of monuments in North Rhine-Westphalia 11.1. Darmstadt 2015, pages 229-230.
  • Klaus Ruthenberg, Jürgen Weiner: Some "Tarry Substance" from the Wooden Bandkeramik Well of Erkelenz-Kückhoven (Northrhine-Westphalia, FRG). Discovery and Analysis. In: W. Brzesinski & W. Piotrowski (eds.): Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Wood Tar and Pitch , 1997, pp. 29-33 (Warszawa).
  • Andreas Kurzweil, Jürgen Weiner: Where are the retorts? - Thoughts on the allothermal production of birch pitch. In: Experimental Archeology in Europe. Balance 2013 , Issue 12, 2013, pp. 10–19 (Unteruhldingen).
  • Alfred Pawlik & Jürgen Thissen: Hafted armatures and multi-component tool design at the Micoquian site of Inden-Altdorf, Germany. In: Journal of Archaeological Science , Volume 38, 2011, pp. 1699-1708.
  • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: Shipwrecks: Report on the misfortune of the Narváez expedition to the south coast of North America 1527–1536. 2., completely reworked. Ed., Renner, Haar near Munich 1963, page 44

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Judith M. Grünberg, Heribert Graetsch, Ursula Baumer, Johann Koller: Investigation of the Middle Paleolithic "resin remains" from Königsaue, district Aschersleben-Staßfurt. In: Annual publication for Central German prehistory. Volume 81, 1999, pp. 7-38.
  2. Johann Koller, Ursula Baumer, Dietrich Mania: High-Tech in the Middle Palaeolithic: Neandertal-manufactured Pitch Identified. In: European Journal of Archeology. Volume 4, 2001, pp. 385-397.
  3. ^ Judith M. Grünberg: Middle Palaeolithic birch-bark pitch. In: Antiquity. Volume 76, 2002, pp. 15-16.
  4. Neubacher, Breuer; State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt: Bad luck for the hobby chemist .
  5. ^ Alfred Pawlik, Jürgen Thissen: Birch pitch and reindeer hunting in the Indetal. In: Archäologie im Rheinland 2007/2008, pp. 41–44. Theiss publishing house.
  6. Jürgen Thissen, Alfred Pawlik: Stone tools with remains of birch pitch. Oldest glue in Central Europe. In: Archeology in Germany. Issue 3, 2010, 4.
  7. ^ Alfred Pawlik, Jürgen Thissen: Hafted armatures and multi-component tool design at the Micoquian site of Inden-Altdorf, Germany. In: Journal of Archaeological Science . Volume 38, 2011, pp. 1699-1708. doi : 10.1016 / j.jas.2011.03.001 .
  8. Robert Dinnis, Alfred Pawlik and Claire Gaillard: Bladelet cores as weapon tips? Hafting residue identification and micro-wear analysis of carinated burins from the late Aurignacian of Les Vachons, France. In: Journal of Archaeological Science. Volume 36, 2009, pp. 1922-1934 doi : 10.1016 / j.jas.2009.04.020 .
  9. ^ Paul Peter Anthony Mazza, Fabio Martini, Benedetto Sala et al .: A new Palaeolithic discovery: tar-hafted stone tools in a European Mid-Pleistocene bone-bearing bed. In: Journal of Archaeological Science . Volume 33, No. 9, 2006, pp. 1310-1318.
  10. Herbert Funke: Chemical-analytical investigations of various archaeological finds. Dissertation, 1969, University of Hamburg.
  11. a b Friedrich Palmer: The emergence of birch pitch in a fireplace under paleolithic conditions. ( Memento of the original from May 25, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , in Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte , Volume 16, 2007, pp. 75–83. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  12. PRB Kozowyk, M. Soressi, D. Pomstra, GHJ Langejans: Experimental methods for the Palaeolithic dry distillation of birch bark: implications for the origin and development of Neandertal adhesive technology . In: Scientific Reports . tape 7 , no. 1 , August 31, 2017, ISSN  2045-2322 , doi : 10.1038 / s41598-017-08106-7 ( [accessed September 1, 2017]).
  13. Schmidt, P., Blessing, M., Rageot, M., Iovita, R., Pfleging, J., Nickel, KG; Righetti, L. & Tennie, C .: Birch tar extraction does not prove Neanderthal behavioral complexity . In: PNAS . August 19, 2019, doi : 10.1073 / pnas.1911137116 .
  14. Schmidt, P., Blessing, M., Rageot, M., Iovita, R., Pfleging, J., Nickel, KG; Righetti, L. & Tennie, C .: Birch tar extraction does not prove Neanderthal behavioral complexity . In: PNAS . August 19, 2019, doi : 10.1073 / pnas.1911137116 .
  15. Andreas Kurzweil, Dieter Todtenhaupt: The double pot process: A reconstructed medieval method of wood tar extraction . In: Archaeological Communications from Northwest Germany. Beiheft 4, 1990, pp. 472-479.
  16. Rottländer, Rolf CA: Investigations on the putty mass of shanked flint blades. In: HT Waterbolk and W. van Zeist (eds.): Niederwil, a settlement of the Pfyn culture. IV Wood artifacts and textiles. Academica Helvetica I / IV. Bern 1991, pp. 249-250.
  17. ^ Wilhelm Sandermann: Investigations into prehistoric "grave resins" and putties. In: Technical contributions to archeology , Volume 2, 1965, pp. 58–73.
  18. Jürgen Weiner: Practical experiments for the production and use of birch pitch. In: Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt , Volume 18, 1988, pp. 329–334.
  19. DNA from birch pitch from Lolland [1]

Web links

Wiktionary: Birkenpech  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations