Harvest, Extraction and Uses for Tree Bast, Overview

 NB: There will be posts from time to time, that span several hundred if not a thousand years, simply because the principles of how something was achieve remained fairly constant until technological advancement drove change. These posts will mainly be about practical subjects, where processes remained valid, often until the early modern period or later.

This post provides an overview of the methods employed to extract fibres from a variety of trees and examples of the use of bast cordage. Wayland-Barber (1994) and Hardy 2008, note that string was an important aspect of human development, helping early people construct shelters, fashion nets, bags and baskets, and make attachment lines for spears. Whilst finer threads allowed the production of a rough cloth, and the development of more fitted clothing by joining hides with a needle.

Cordage is defined as “a string, thread or rope, almost indispensible in a survival situation” (Brown T 1983).Originally, cordage was made from vines, sinews and plaited or twisted grasses. However during the paeleolithic, the European archaeological record describes the emergence of cords, made by man, from the fibrous material found underneath the outer bark of a tree, the bast.

The earliest of these cords was accidentally discovered, as a fossil in clay, by Abbe Glory, who was catalouging the cave paintings of the Lascaux  Caves, France. Leroi-Gourhan (1982) analysed the fossilised rope, discovering that it was made of plant fibres, was 30cm long and  7mm in diameter, and  comprised 3 twisted cords. Bender Jørgensen (1992), identified the spun yarns or cords as s-plied, whilst Wayland -Barber (1991), thought that the that the rope itself was s plied and the cords z-plied, and likely made of bast. The significance of the s and z plying is that the cords were twisted together in the opposite direction to which they were originally spun,  as this keeps the fibres together in the finished rope. Glory theorised that the rope was a guideline used to help people navigate the dark cave system. (Wigforss 2014)

What is Bast and Where is it Found?

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Cross Section of Tree, from http://www.geoffswoodwork.co.uk/timber%20growth.htm

Trees have 2 sets of tubes, phloem and xylem, that form a rudimentary circulatory system. Xylem transports water and minerals to the leaves and hardens to form the wood.Phloem transports sugars, synthesised in the leaves, around the plant and is soft, permeable and strong, making it a useful source of twine. It is harvested by peeling bark from either living trees or cut branches. It is obtained by peeling, or extracted by retting, soaking peeled bark in water until it begins to rot, or boiling the bark in lye .

 

 

 

Using Tree Bast

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Wayland -Barber (1994) theorises that paelolthic and mesolithic women, might have first used barks from various trees to weave the baskets they needed to gather berries, nuts and seeds to support their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. From here, its possible that someone started to peel the inner bark and twist the relatively weak fibres, to make a stronger string or twine, like those seen on the string skirts of the Venus statues.

Bark is harvested by peeling long strips from either the living tree or cut branches, in Spring, suggesting that bark was possibly preserved until needed throughout the year. Brown (2013) has conducted some experimental archaeology, drying  and rehydrating bark, soaking it until sufficiently soft to peel the bast fibres from it or retting. Some barks give up their fibres more easily if  boiled in lye or  fire ash water, whilst others could be peeled and . The cordage can then be prepared for use and seems to retain its properties. Some species such as the wych elm, will produce a slime when rehydrated that is rich in sugars, this is simply rinsed off, but in the past has meant that some barks were a useful food source in times of famine.

The table below gives an overview of the trees more commonly used to extract bast from, best methods of extraction, the uses of the prepared fibre and the earliest appearance in the archaeological record. A further post will look at retting and cord making in more detail. There’s a useful video here from Ray Mears, showing the whole process of making cordage from willow

Tree Extraction Method Uses Early Example
Lime
(Tilia cordata)

This is the most commonly used tree

Peel off bark, rett, spin and twist into cords Rope / cords
pliable, low weight, water
absorbtion and extensibility. Stronger than most
European trees but does wear.  Also used as weft thread for some textiles, Budd (2007) reports spinning threads 0.7mm diameter
Mesolithic c9000BC

Used to make rough clothing – Otzi the Iceman had lime bast in his cloak. Swiss Lake Textiles also contained lime

Used until 15th C when superceded by hemp

Willow Peeling, twisting, strongest when wet Rope, extremely durable Sunken log boat
Denmark
Oak  As for Lime  Rope  Ropes on viking era ships (Toddy 2005).
Elm / Wych Elm  Retting and peeling or boiling in lye / ash water  Forms cords, ropes and even fine sewing threads  Ropes on viking era ships (Toddy 2005). Used by Menomini People in N. America for twine, ropes etc.
Sweet
Chestnut
 Peeling or retting Rope / cords
weaker than
willow (Toddy 2005)
Pine Roots  Peeling or retting Makes  strong cordage and bindings

 

Gathering and Using Bast  an Observation of A 20th Century, Primitive Hunter-Gatherer Tribe 

Mackenzie (1991) describes the method employed by primitive tribes in New Guinea,  for making string from tree bast as follows:

Bark was stripped from the tree, normally by men. The bark was then softened
either by immersing in water or by gentle heating over a fire. This enabled the outer bark to be peeled off, following which the bast was dried, possibly on a smoking rack. The sheets of bast fibre were sun dried for a few days then stored in the rafters and smoked until they were dry, which took around one to two weeks. They could then be stored indefinitely. Before actually working the fibres, they needed to be re-moistened. This was achieved in different ways: they could be left outside overnight to absorb dew or be chewed by women. The simplest form of string-making and the technique used among the women of highland New Guinea was to roll two fibres together on the thigh and add new fibres in when these were ending thus extending the length beyond the limit of one fibre

Wayland Barber (1994) suggests that this is how string was made in Europe until  drop spinning appeared in the Neolithic. Mackenzie estimates that it took somewhere between 60 and 80 hours to make enough string to create a bag, and another 100-160 hours to loop the string to make a bag, which according to Sillitoe (1988) implies that women spent 85% of their time engaged in these activities. This seems to suggest women spent most of their time sitting around plying cord and making bags. However,observation of cultures still employing these methods shows that these activities are engaged in “on the hoof”, hence the women are multitasking the majority of the time. Ingold (2000) suggests that as these activities are learned as a girl and as she grows and matures, they become intrinsic and automatic.

 

References and Bibliography

Bender Jørgensen, L. (1992). North European textiles until AD 1000. København: Aarhus University Press. IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

Brown P (2013) Wych Elm or Scotch Elm Cordage from Dried Bark [online]  http://www.badgerbushcraft.com/flora/wych-elm-or-scotch-elm-cordage-from-dried-bark.htm Accessed 26/09/2016

Brown T & Morgan (1983) Making Natural Cordage, Mother Earth News, Issue 79 [online] http://wildwoodsurvival.com/survival/cordage/men79/index.html Accessed 26/09/2016

Budd D (2007) How to Process Elm Bark, thread 9. [online]  http://www.manataka.org/page75.html accessed 26/09/2016

Hardy K, (2008) Prehistoric String Theory. How Twisted Fibres Help ed to Shape the World. Antiquity 82(316) · June 2008 Online  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247936139_Prehistoric_string_theory_How_twisted_fibres_helped_to_shape_the_world Accessed 17/9/2016

Harris S (2014) Flax fibre: Innovation and Change in the Early Neolithic A Technological and Material Perspective. University of Nebraska, Lincoln [online] http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1904&context=tsaconf

Harris, S. (2014) Sensible dress: the sight, sound, smell and touch of Late Ertebølle Mesolithic cloth types. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 24(1), pp. 37-56. [online] http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/116075/7/116075.pdf

Ingold T (2000) Of String Bags and Birds Nests IN Ingold T(ed) The Perception of the Environment London Routledge

Leroi Gourhan, A. (1982). The Archaeology of the Lascaux Cave. Scientific American Publications. IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

MacKenzie, M. 1991. Androgynous Objects: String Bags and Gender in Central New Guinea. Philadelphia: Harwood Academic.

Moonraker (2005) Bushcraft UK, Preparing and Using Bast [online] http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-5592.html. Accessed 30/8/2016

Sillitoe P (1998) Made in Nuigini.  British Museum Publications IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

Smith HH (1924) The Ethnobotany of the Menomini [online]  http://www.manataka.org/page75.html. Accessed 26/9/2016

Toddy (2005), Bushcraft UK, Preparing and Using Bast [online] http://www.bushcraftuk.com/ Accessed 30/8/2016

Wayland Barber, E, J. (1991). Prehistoric Textiles. The development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze ages with special reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press IN Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

Wayland Barber, E. J. (1994) Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, W. W. Norton and Company.

Wigforss E (2014) Perished Material – Vanished People Understanding variation in Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic Textile Technologies, Dept of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lunds University [online]http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=4388457&fileOId=4388462 Accessed 17/9/2014

 

The articles on this blog are researched and written by Beverley Newman (c) 2016

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Harvest, Extraction and Uses for Tree Bast, Overview