A Look at the Distant Viking Age is Revealing Clues About Tar Production

It seems we owe a debt of gratitude to the Vikings for refining the tar production process, according to recent research.

When science meets history, the result is usually a new theory which offers a new picture of events from long-forgotten centuries. Sometimes they lead to the discovery of clues of lost or distant civilizations, or they answer questions about ancient methods of cheese production.

Now, one scientist, Sweden-based Uppsala University archaeologist Andreas Hennius, is reporting the results of his research on tar production in the Viking Era, which he hopes will provide some insight into how the sticky material was churned out in large quantities.

A Material in High Demand

As the Vikings were seafaring people, it was essential that the ships they constructed be tough and durable, able to hold up against threatening climate conditions and survive traveling long distances. 

Hennius estimates that roughly 492 gallons of tar would have been needed to sufficiently coat the longships which were used by the Vikings, which was used for (1) covering sails, (2) covering various wood components, and of course, (3) touch-ups for the fleet over time. 

Establishing a Historical Link

Rather than making the claim that the large-scale tar production was developed solely by the Vikings, he makes a compelling argument that their methods were a continuation, or more specifically, an evolution of a method from the Roman Iron Age--roughly 0-400 AD,  which involved the use of a funnel-shaped device.

A Look at the Distant Viking Age is Revealing Clues About Tar Production
The Ancient Roman Method          Source: A. Hennius/Antiquity

The Romans used the crude method to cook the tar in what was essentially a large vat. The innovation made by the Vikings involved a more sophisticated update to the kiln concept, with the added features of materials providing greater insulation around the overall structure and a tar outlet pipe that acted as a kind of siphon. 

A Look at the Distant Viking Age is Revealing Clues About Tar Production
The Updated Method Used by the Vikings         Source: A. Hennius/Antiquity

Hennius credits this innovation with the later development of present-day Scandinavian society as a whole. "The transition to intensive tar manufacturing implies new ways of organizing production, labor, forest management, and transportation, which influenced the structure of Scandinavian society and connected forested outlands with the world economy," he shares in his paper. 

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Creating a Different Narrative

“I suggest that tar production in eastern Sweden developed from a small-scale household activity in the Roman Iron Age to large-scale production that relocated to the forested outlands during the Vendel/Viking Period,” Hennius writes in the paper. “This change, I propose, resulted from the increasing demand for tar driven by an evolving maritime culture.”

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In light of the evidence presented by Hennius, it becomes clear that there is a kind of industrial revolution which was enacted by the Vikings. Findings like these make us reconsider our concept of what progress means, and more importantly, serve as a contribution that disrupts the static and linear view of technological development over the centuries.

The Vikings, it turns out, were true pioneers. Just as technological innovations expand our understanding of the future, the work of archaeologists like Hennius is expanding our imagined views of past civilizations.

Details about the study appear in an article, titled "Viking Age tar production and outland exploitation", and were published in the October edition of the Antiquity journal.

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