Laboratory strength testing of pine wood and birch bark adhesives: a first study of the material properties of pitch

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Adhesives are an important yet often overlooked aspect of human tool use. Previous experiments have shown that compound resin/gum adhesive production by anatomically modern humans was a cognitively demanding task that required advanced use of fire, forward planning, and abstraction among other traits. Yet the oldest known adhesives were produced by Neandertals, not anatomically modern humans. These tar or pitch adhesives are an entirely different material, produced from a distinct, albeit similarly complex process. However, the material properties of these adhesives and the influence of the production process on performance is still unclear. To this end we conducted a series of laboratory based lap shear and impact tests following modern adhesive testing standards and at three different temperatures to measure the strength of pine and birch pitch adhesives. We tested eight different recipes that contain charcoal as an additive (mimicking contamination) or were reduced by boiling for different lengths of time. Lap shear tests were conducted on wood and flint adherends to determine shear strength on different materials, and we conducted high load-rate tests to understand how the same material behaves under impact forces. Our results indicate that both pine and birch pitch adhesives behave similarly at room temperature. Pine pitch is highly sensitive to the addition of charcoal and further heating. Up to a certain extent charcoal additives increases performance, as does extra seething. However, too much charcoal and seething will reduce performance. Similarly, pine pitch is sensitive to ambient temperature changes and it is strongest at 0°C and weakest at 38°C. Adhesive failures occur in a similar manner on flint and wood suggesting the weakest part of a flint-adhesive-wood composite tool may have been the cohesive strength of the adhesive. Finally, pine pitch adhesives may be better suited to resisting high-load rate impacts than shear forces. Our experiments show that pitch production and post-production manipulation are sensitive processes, and to obtain a workable and strong adhesive one requires a deep understanding of the material properties. Our results validate previous archaeological adhesive studies that suggest that the manufacture and use of adhesives was an advanced technological process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-59
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Adhesives
  • Pine pitch
  • Birch bark pitch
  • Palaeolithic
  • Hafting
  • Neandertal
  • lap shear
  • impact


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