Case Study 2

A lute, one of a handful of wooden stringed instruments to survive from late antiquity, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lute’s date of production is given as c. CE 200-500 and the medium is recorded as ‘Wood with traces of paint’. It is 73.2 cm (almost 29 inches) long. My working hypothesis is that its size and the curvature of growth rings visible on the soundbox suggest it was carved from a branch fallen or cut from a living tree. Although the timbers are not identified, I believe the larger part of the lute, its bowl and neck, were fashioned from sycamore fig, a wood native to Egypt.

The lute was acquired from the Cairo antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman.[i] It was one of a number of musical instruments and piece of wooden furniture purchased in 1912, and written up in the Museum’s bulletin in April 1913 when they were first displayed in the ‘recent accessions room’.[ii]

Vitrine in the Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today is can be seen in the musical instruments department, in a vitrine with some of the contemporary purchases – note the wooden harp – alongside other ancient instruments.

The lute was taken off display in March 2021 and examined by Kristin Holder in the Met’s Conservation Department. What follows draws heavily on her report, and I am very grateful to her. I also thank the medieval curators Griffith Mann and Andrea Achi, and Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, a curator of musical instruments.

The lute, bowl (soundbox) and soundboards

The neck and body of the lute, excluding the soundboard, are carved from a single piece of finely-grained wood, worked to optimize sound quality. The soundbox in the bowl and lower neck was hollowed out with at least two gouges, chisel-like tools with curved blades. Tool marks suggest one gouge was c. 6 mm wide, and another was smaller, around 2mm. Around the outer edge of the body there are diagonal cut marks, from a hand saw. Growth rings are also visible, with outer, larger rings on the outside. Holder believes the wood to be consistent with sycamore fig, but was unable to take samples to confirm this.[iii]

The l;ute, exterior and peg-holes

The neck has four peg-holes that pass all the way through the wood. These are drilled at an angle so the pegs would have protruded above and below the handle. Gut strings would have been secured by the pegs and to the tip of the bowl. Immediately below the peg holes is the nut, a small piece of wood cut to size and inserted into a groove carved into the neck. The gut strings, no longer extant, would have rested on this just above the frets: you can see grooves in the nut. The frets, which are not extant, were also gut, tied around the neck. There would also have been a bridge, above the soundboard, that has been lost.[iv]

The soundboard is in two pieces, which cover the soundbox in the bowl and the lower end of the neck. The two thin boards do not show saw marks, suggesting the wood was split rather than sawn. The smaller piece covering the lower neck is drilled in one place with a single soundhole. The larger piece covering the bowl is drilled in five places, with nineteen separate drilled soundholes. There are four triangular clusters of holes, two sixes and two threes, at the corners; and a diamond of four holes in the centre. 

The soundboard was glued to the bowl and neck using a dark viscous adhesive, perhaps pitch or animal glue, which contains some vegetable fibres.

The timber used to carve a lute is usually selected for its tonal qualities. Later lute soundboards have often been made of spruce and bowls of yew. Both are also coniferous woods. However, what was locally available must have played a role here. The reddish brown colour and grain of the lute’s bowl and neck are typical of sycamore fig. This has been coated and polished on the exterior, but the interior was left untreated and the natural colour of the wood is clear.

Kristin Holder has confirmed the wood used for the soundboard is coniferous, although she did not conduct analysis to confirm which type. Note the coarse grain and visible alternating wider light and narrower dark stripes. This graining and coloration is typical of varieties of fir, pine, cedar, and yew. Holder suggests yew (taxus baccata), however this was not common in Egypt.

Conifers are common across the broader northern Mediterranean, but not the southern coast. The most common such wood found in Egypt is cedar, from Lebanon or Turkey. Of other conifers, cypress, pine, fir, larch, and spruce are all known to have been imported into Egypt at this time.[v]

Lute soundboard, with analytical notes by Kristin Holder

The Met has not located records for the restorations made to the lute. The soundboard had splits that were rejoined with polyvinyl acetate emulsion (PVA), common wood glue, which fluoresces blue in ultraviolet light. In addition, a piece of linen was glued over a split to add structural stability. Holes were drilled through the linen, for aesthetic reasons. PVA can also be seen in the join line in the small soundboard on the neck. PVA was invented in 1912, which is exactly the year the lute was purchased by the Met. However, it was not commercialized until the 1930s, so we must guess that the restoration was carried at the Met some time after it was purchased and first displayed, when record keeping was less robust.[vi]

Lute, with analytical notes by Kristin Holder

The Met records traces of paint, and a close look suggests this was green, applied in various places to the exterior of the neck and bowl. The part of the soundboard covering the lower neck also shows, under a microscope, traces of at least six concentric rings, perhaps serving as finger marks between frets. This target design is noteworthy as it is similar to marks on many wooden pieces from Egypt, including, for example, a comb in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. The marks fluoresced pink-orange under ultraviolet light, suggesting they were once picked out in a red pigment. [vii]

The lute, in Greek pandoura, was used throughout late antiquity.[viii] Seven lutes, both smaller and larger, have survived from the period.[ix] Prof. Ricardo Eichmann of the German Archaeological Institute (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut), Berlin, has studied all seven lutes, before and since his seminal monograph, Koptische Lauten, of 1994.

Eichmann, Koptische Lauten

All but two have three pegs – in one case, the lute from Antinoopolis now in Grenoble, two of the pegs have survived – and it has been suggested by Eichmann that the fourth peg hole on the Met lute (marked with a circle in the illustration above) – and with one other larger lute – was a later adaptation.

Moreover, to quote Eichmann, the Met lute “was equipped with five full tied frets…  which had been repeatedly adjusted in antiquity. We can clearly see the imprints of bound frets on the back of the handle.” This allows for the possibility that the lute had several life stages, perhaps even several owners.

I am very grateful to Ricardo Eichmann for sharing his observations with me, including on how the Met lute would have sounded, and for providing images, including the one reproduced above.

We do not know where the Met lute was found, but it is possible that it was buried in a tomb with its last owner, like the Antinoopolis/Grenoble lute, the closest in size and style to the Met lute. That was discovered in 1907, only shortly before the Met lute came to market.[x] The lute from Antinoopolis has been radiocarbon dated – two samples were taken – to between CE 418 and 665.[xi] Radicarbon dating or more ancient instruments is underway. Eichmann dates all seven lutes to the fifth to ninth centuries CE, and our lute was almost certainly produced at the end or later than the Met’s suggested date range of CE 200-500.

Stringed wooden instruments were and used in various celebrations, notably weddings. Larger events, such as festivals and dances, would have demanded percussion instruments like drums and cymbals, rattles and castanets, and also metal and wind instruments such as trumpets, tibia and flutes.

There is nothing comparable to the Met lute in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. Byzantine curator Betsy Williams devoted her time, energy and enthusiasm in helping me to identify wooden objects in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, including several that were produced at around the same time as the lute which were also found in Egypt.[xii]

An Egyptian funerary portrait in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, with its accession card

Some were acquired from Brummer, a famous dealer, who in turn acquired this remarkable piece of wood (BZ.1937.32), a funerary portrait, from Nahman’s shop in Cairo – the same shop that sold the Met its lute – and sold it to the Blisses, who endowed the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, for a handy profit in 1937. The painting dates from the second century CE, but there is no record of the type of wood.

Sycamore fig (ficus sycomorus), which as we have noted was native to Egypt, was used for centuries to make similar death masks and coffins. However, we cannot assume that the Dumbarton Oaks death mask was made of local wood. A recent and ongoing study based at the Getty, the APPEAR project, offers more and very surprising information, which suggests imported wood was far more commonly used than native wood as the base for ancient panel paintings (mummy portraits). Caroline Cartwright of the British Museum has examined more than 180 such portraits from Egypt since 1996, of which only 20% were of native woods, most being sycamore fig (16%). (She insists on the spelling sycomore, but most do not.) Of the 80% of portraits on imported woods, the vast majority – 70% of the total – were on European linden wood (tilia cordata or platyphyllus), also known as lime, but unrelated to the citrus fruit tree. These trees grow across central and northern Europe, but are not native to the eastern Mediterranean [xiii]

Wood was ubiquitous in the Roman world, including in Egypt, where local supplies were scarce.[xiv] For example, we have thousands of wooden things from excavations at two modest towns in the Fayum Oasis of Egypt, Karanis and Tebtunis, which both flourished in late antiquity. Karanis was abandoned after the sixth century, but Tetubnis endured into the thirteenth century. We must imagine that many more wooden objects were not simply abandoned to be excavated centuries later, but were taken elsewhere, recycled or burnt.

Wood was used to make everything that was made with wood before the age of plastics and steel. Wood was a medium in its own right for Roman artists and artisans, and was essential for major industries such as construction and shipbuilding. However, wood was also a fundamental resource for the manufacture of metal, clay, and glass, and for materials such as quick lime used in mortars, plasters (including stucco), and concrete. To sustain high temperatures required for smelting and other industrial processes, a great deal of wood was converted to charcoal, which reduced the volume of fuel by about four-fifths. Charcoal was also preferred for domestic purposes by those who could afford it, since it produced far less smoke. This was the case for public baths, for example, and all cities of any size had at least one of those still functioning in late antiquity. It has been estimated that between 80% and 90% of the wood consumed annually by Romans was burned.

Demand for fuel per head of population were such that between 10% and 12% of the Roman empire’s lands in any given year would have to be given over to its production. The Romans knew which woods were best for which uses and understood the relative calorific value of fuel woods. Alternatives to firewood were used where available, for example coal in northern regions where it was mined, or peat and animal dung for heating at lower temperatures. Lands not considered cultivable might produce a good deal of fuel locally: peat and reeds from bogs and marshes were abundant sources of fuel. There were also innovative fuels, for example the detritus from olive oil pressing, pomace, which was used in North Africa for the manufacture of amphorae in which the oil was transported. One can imagine a pall of smoke would have hung daily over every settlement of any size.[xv]

By one estimate, the annual iron production across the Roman world in the first century CE would have required 38,400km2 of forest, after wood had been converted to charcoal. Silver-lead production, devoted principally to the silver denarius, would have required just as much fuel, meaning metallurgy commanded the resources of c. 2% of the total landed area of the empire (3,800,000 km2) at its height. The demand in late antiquity was far lower, but forest resources available to the Romans was then also far more limited in late antiquity.

Despite its ubiquity, therefore, wood is frequently spoken about in its absence, in terms of combustion, decay, and deforestation. Because wood rots easily in dark, damp conditions, it survives best in waterlogged conditions, such as the Yenikapı harbor, and arid climates, such as the Egyptian deserts.[xvi]

Even where wooden things have survived, there is another absence with which we are now familiar: timber identification.[xvii] A full inventory of timbers used to create the wooden things excavated at Karanis and Tetubnis, for example, would take a huge amount of work, but it would tell us plenty about late antique wood, local growth, management and usage, the importation and distribution of wood, recycling of wood, and so much more. This would complement the evidence for repair on, and reuse of many excavated objects – one example: a toy mallet was made from a broken weaving comb, shown below – and the testimony of papyri that wooden objects were parts of household inventories, including tools and kitchen equipment like the whisk illustrated below, which were bought and sold, bequeathed and inherited.[xviii]

A toy mallet, mad from a broken weaving comb, shown with a wooden kitchen whisk, both from Karanis, now in the Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan

There are many different reasons for the widespread failure to identify timber, including historical lack of interest and past and current dearth of expertise. This is changing, in part as a response to the imperative to combat illegal logging and the illicit international timber trade, which has driven the development of databases and a range of tools to rapidly and accurately identify timbers. Scholars are also now asking different questions, and historians of art and culture, as well as archaeologists, are increasingly interested in nature, the environment, and ancient ecosystems.[xix]

We have already spoken a little about sycamore fig, which can be a hard or light timber, easily worked but knotty. We shall return to it below in conclusion. Acacia and tamarisk are both dense, durable timbers that grow quite abundantly in the Nile Valley, and less abundantly elsewhere in Egypt. Charcoal was produced predominantly from Nilotic acacia, which burns at a high and sustained temperature. It is assumed that charcoal was made where the wood was harvested, then exported, since charcoal weighs a fraction of the wood from which it is produced. Tamarisk, which grows as several tree and shrub species in Egypt, was also used for charcoal and firewood.

Grey mangrove and red mangrove are native to Egypt and both grow along the Red Sea coast. The mangrove is an interface between terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Its roots filter out around 90% of salt from seawater, and the remainder is excreted through leaves and branches. Today, Egypt is actively planting new mangroves, which provide spawning, nursery and feeding grounds to more than 35 species of fish, as well as shrimp and crabs.[xx]

Juniper, a coniferous softwood, is native to the Sinai peninsula. There are also fruit tree woods which could be used with regular pruning or at the end of a tree’s life, including date palm, fig (distinct from sycamore fig), and olive wood (a twisting, irregular wood, which can be hard and durable in some conditions, but is highly sensitive to environmental deterioration).

None of these trees grows straight or especially tall in Egypt, largely due to lack of rain. For purposes of construction, wood has been imported into Egypt since the third millennium BCE. There had been an Egyptian royal monopoly earlier over the importation of cedars from Byblos (Lebanon, from the mountains east of Tripolis).[xxi]

The ancient Alexandrian shipbuilding industry relied almost entirely on imported wood, and timber shortages were commonly reported there. Marc Antony granted the cedars of Hamaxia, in mountainous western Cilicia (southeastern Turkey), to Cleopatra ‘since the wood was suited to the building of ships’ (Strabo, Geography, 14.5.3).[xxii]

Papyri of the third to fifth centuries CE refer to wooden beams and timbers cut from felled trees within inventories of building materials and some fascinating local government documents have survived, for example a papyrus from the city of Hermopolis, in middle Egypt on the Nile, directing payments for consignments of imported wood to be used in public building projects.[xxiii]

Many woods were imported into Egypt in late antiquity. An invaluable 2018 study of woods and charcoals excavated at eleven sites in Egypt’s eastern desert and the Red Sea ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike, has turned up fascinating data for the period between the first and seventh centuries CE. From 408 samples of wood (from four sites) and 95 of charcoal (from seven sites), 71 distinct taxa were identified at the level of family (e.g. Pinaceae, which includes pines, cedars, firs), genus (e.g. Pine, pinus), or species (e.g. Scots Pine, pinus sylvestris). These woods came from Egypt itself, but also from the broader Mediterranean, northern Europe, western Africa (ebony), and southern Asia (teak).

Scots pine (also called Scotch pine, Baltic pine) is among the most common trees in the world, but it is native to northern Europe, and does not grow south of the 40th parallel. In northern Greece and Turkey it would be a mountain tree growing above elevations of 1200 m (4000 feet). Scots pine is a tall tree well suited to construction of buildings and ships, such as those discovered at Yenikapı. Although Scots pine cannot grow in Egypt, simple domestic objects like a spoon, spatula and jar lid and wine vessel stopper, all found at Myos Hormos and Berenike, were carved from it. There are abundant wood shavings and chips from Scots pine at Myros Hormos, showing that it was worked there.[xxiv]

Wooden amphora stoppers typically would have been made near the product contained in the vessels (wine, fish sauce, etc.), although not always from local wood. Other stoppers and bungs, spoons and spatulas, found at Myos Hormos and Berenike, were made of woods native to Egypt, including acacia, mangrove, and tamarisk.

Timber analysis, therefore, gives us evidence for local wood production and use; for importation to Egypt of timbers over great distances through the Mediterranean and along Nile, and also through the Red Sea ports from points east and south; and use of off-cuts or reuse of imported woods for domestic use. Moreover, the discovery of charcoal reminds us that far more wood was burnt than was used in construction and artisan production.

Let us conclude where we started, with my hypothesis that the lute at the Met was carved from a branch that fell from a living tree, or was carefully cut from that tree, to produce music for those who might have celebrated in the presence of the sycamore fig.

The sycamore fig was especially prized in Egypt. It was also revered. Long before the coming of Rome, the sycamore fig was sacred to the goddess Hathor (and Nut). Pyramid texts refer to the sycamore fig on the eastern horizon that offered support and shade to the gods of the underworld, towards which the dead gravitated. But the sycamore fig was a source of life, not death.[xxv]

Each sycamore fig tree creates a unique ecosystem, linking a water source, usually a shallow subterranean source, with thousands of living creatures. The sycamore fig flowers and fruits several times a year, after sitting barren through winter. Inside the figs tiny wasp larvae develop. In Egypt these are not pollinators, as is generally the case with fig wasps. The figs feed more than a hundred varieties of bird, and others eat the insects that are attracted to the figs and wasps; small mammals eat the fruit, and lizards feed on the insects. Snakes feed on the mammals and lizards.[xxvi]

The sycamore fig emits chemicals that produce a unique scent, attracting fig wasps, and others that deter or protect it against invasive insects. Recent research has demonstrated that these chemicals have insecticidal and antimicrobial properties. The medicinal value of the bark and leaves of the sycamore fig has long been recognized, and this is explicated by scientific analysis. For example, soaking the leaves of the sycamore fig produces a solution that is effective against Shigellosis, a common and very contagious bacterial infection of the intestine that causes diarrhea and dehydration, which can be fatal in infants and children. Today it is the most common cause of diarrheal infection in children under five in Saharan Africa and South Asia, and it causes a million deaths annually.[xxvii]

The sycamore fig tree grew, and still grows along the Nile, and on the fringes of the eastern and western deserts where water is available. However, it is more accurate to say the tree was planted in those places, since in Egypt the sycamore fig produces no viable seeds, so the tree does not reproduce naturally. Therefore, we must surmise that the tree was introduced to Egypt and cultivated in antiquity by those who valued its shade, timber, and fruit. It was later introduced to the southern Levant, where it still flourishes.

The humans who have cultivated the sycamore fig have always eaten its fruit and valued its wide, shady canopy. One can understand, therefore, why importing wood from thousands of miles away made more sense than felling a tree, and why a branch from a living tree might have been taken to fashion a musical instrument.


[i] E. Dospel Williams, ‘“Into the hands of a well-known antiquary of Cairo”: the Assiut Treasure and the making of an archaeological hoard’, West 86th 21/ii (2014), 251-72

[ii] C. L. R., ‘Egyptian furniture and musical instruments’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8/iv (1913), 72-9, at 77-9. The lute is described there as Coptic, and dated 4th-8th centuries AD. It is illustrated as fig. 9.

[iii] Holder has suggested that the bowl or ‘sound box’ was carved to follow the tree’s growth rings, with the outer, larger rings on the outside. If tree-rings are visible in the bowl of he Met lute, it may soon be possible to determine its approximate date of manufacture. This is not currently possible, as there is no master dendrochronology – which is to say, no calendar dated framework against which growth rings can be matched – for any Egyptian timber. This does not rule out ficus sycomorus as the timber grew in a Mediterranean climate. Growth rings are not always evident in ficus sycomorus when it grows in a tropical climate. However, it has been demonstrated that Egyptian trees form growth rings: N. Belacy et al., ‘Verification of annual growth rings in Egyptian trees by C-14 method’, Isotopes in Environmental and Health Studies 26 (1990), 339-40; P. Creasman, ‘Tree rings and the chronology of ancient Egypt’, Radiocarbon 54/iv (2014), S85-92. Eichmann, Koptische Lauten, figs. 15. 19, 24, shows the growth rings of other lutes in relation to a fictive tree.

[iv] The termination of the neck in the form of a tenon suggests there may once a morticed head, although this is unlikely, since no other lute of this period has been found with one. Three others have similar tenons.

[v] F. Médail et al., ‘What is a tree in the Mediterranean Basin hotspot? A critical analysis’, Forest Ecosystems (2009) 6:17 (19 pages, online), which is restricted to the northern Mediterranean region, identifies 245 distinct tree taxa. See Liphschitz, ‘Timber identification’, Table 2, p. 263, for cypress, pine, juniper, and fir.

[vi]On the discovery of PVA see:

[vii] J. Echard et al., ‘Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry characterization of historical varnishes of ancient Italian lutes and violins’, Analytica Chimica Acta 584 (2007), 172-80.

[viii] Chordophones were known in Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium BCE, known in Sumerian as gu-di, ‘wood that has voice’. The English word ‘lute’ derives from an Arabic word for wood, al-ūd, often written as ‘oud’, now considered a type of lute. The Arabic name was given to a Persian instrument, known in the seventh century CE as the barbaṭ, a hollow-bellied wooden instrument with four chords. See Abdoun, Seifed-Din Shehadeh, The Oud across Arabic Culture, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Maryland, 2011. See also James A. Milward, ‘The Silk Road and the Sitar: Finding Centuries of Sociocultural Exchange in the History of an Instrument’, Journal of Social History 52/11 (2018), 206-33.

[ix] I have not yet been able to read F. von Calament and R. Eichmann, eds, Le luth dans l’Égypte byzantine. La tombe de la ‘Prophétesse d Antinoé’ au Musée de Grenoble, Orient-Archäologie 26 (Rahden, 2012). I note the following summary of the second work: ‘The volume enlarges our knowledge of certain aspects of Late Antique Egyptian [Coptic] music and, based on iconographic and literary sources, it provides insights into musical practices of the time in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. The analysis is founded on an only 66.7 cm long lute excavated in Middle Egyptian Antinoe in the early 20th century by Albert Gayet. It was no longer in a playable state, but with its wooden bowl and neck, two of three tuning pegs and a nut with notches for directing the strings it survived almost completely. Positioning grooves for wooden frets indicate its musical potential in term of tones. The instrument, the mummified dead woman and all grave goods [glass objects, painted pottery, sandals, textiles, figure of Isis, bird mummy etc.] were subjected to intensive multi-disciplinary study. This resulted in a later dating into the Byzantine period [5th/6th century]. The lute was able to produce heptatonic scales consisting of whole tones and three-quarter tones on the right side, which are related to Ptolemy and Persian-Arabian music, and a minor third, a whole tone, and a semi tone on the left. The identity and religious affiliation of the deceased remain uncertain’. See:

[x] The ‘prophetess’ died aged c. 40, showing signs of gum disease, ante-mortem tooth loss, and worn teeth. The direction of abrasion suggests she was left-handed. Dental abrasions were perhaps thought to indicate that she also played a wind instrument! However, they are quite typical of remains from Egypt of this period and other possibilities are explored, for example basket making and weaving, where materials were held between the teeth. The conclusion appears to be that she chwed a tough hallucinogenic root. See F. Calament, ‘I. À la décourverte de la tombe de la “Prophétesse”’, in Le luth dans l’Égypte byzantine, pp. 20-3.

[xi] R. Eichmann, ‘Extant lutes from the New Kingdom and the Coptic period of ancient Egypt’, Iconea 4 (2011), 25-37. I am grateful to Prof. Eichmann for sending me pages o fhis longer seminal monograph, R. Eichmann, Koptische Lauten: eine musikarchäologische Untersuchung von sieben Langhalslauten des 3.-9. Jh. n. Chr. aus Ägypten (Mainz, 1994). The radiocarbon dates of two samples from the Antinoopolis lute are as follows: ‘The value obtained for the lute sample is located on a favorable area of the calibration curve; thus, for an uncalibrated date of 1410 30 BP obtained for this sample, one obtains in calibrated age a single value, between 591–665 years AD. The second value (1575 30 BP) is somewhat lower (418–551 years AD).’ See F. Calament, ‘I. À la décourverte de la tombe de la “Prophétesse”’, in Le luth dans l’Égypte byzantine, p. 15.

[xii] The Blisses also bought Pre-Columbian pieces from Brummer, including wooden things such as the dart thrower (atlatl: PC.B.144). Again, there is no indication of the wood, only that it is hard. The Brummer Gallery card files have been digitized at the Met.

[xiii] Cartwright, ‘Understanding wood choices’, cited above.

[xiv] Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea, p. 184, citing Fumagalli 1992, 4-5. Not only the Medieval West is accurately described as a ‘civiltà del legno’.

[xv] W. V. Harris, ‘Defining and detecting Mediterranean deforestation, 800 BCE to 700 CE’, in W. V. Harris, ed., The ancient Mediterranean environment between science and history (Leiden, 2013), pp. 173-94, and other papers from this fine collection, notably the critical conclusion by A. Wilson, and the paper on charcoal by R. Veal.

[xvi] Still, many wooden objects from Egypt in museum collections show substantial deterioration and require considered conservation strategies. See R. Blanchette et al., ‘Assessment of deterioration in archaeological wood from ancient Egypt’, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 33/i (1994), 55-70. Wood also survives in waterlogged conditions, such as those frequented by underwater archaeologists. The conservation of ancient wood, particularly that preserved underwater, is complex. See R. Blanchette, ‘A review of microbial deterioration found in archaeological wood from different environments’, International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation 46 (2000), 189-204.

[xvii] Let me quote one expert whose summation of a museum collection is broadly representative. The Trees and Timber Institute of the National Research Council of Italy (CNR-IVALSA) ‘has worked to identify the wood species used for the carving of the statues preserved in the collection of the National Museum of Palazzo Venezia, in Rome. It is more than 150 artefacts; only in two cases was the wood species indicated and we know now that in both the indication was wrong’! This is from N. Macchioni and M. Bernabei, ‘Identifying the wood of historic artefacts: basic information or simply a curiosity’, Global Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology 6/I (2018), 4-6, which also notes that the Mona Lisa is painted on two panels of poplar, and offers references to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, see below.

[xviii] E. Husselman, ‘Donationes mortis causa from Tetubnis’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 88 (1957), 135-54, is concerned with documents of the second century CE. There has been no systematic timber identification of wooden objects excavated by the University of Michigan (1928-35), although for objects excavated later at Karanis, as part of the URU Fayum Project, some local woods have been identified, namely sycamore fig, acacia, tamarisk and olive. See in detail E. Elgewely, ‘3D reconstruction of furniture from the ancient town of Karanis’, Studies in Digital Heritage 1/ii (December 2017), online:

[xix] With modern methods, accurate identification of wood type is relatively inexpensive and minimally destructive. It requires expensive laboratory equipment so it is not possible to do ‘in the field’, but it can, and perhaps should, be done retrospectively and systematically for archaeological and museum collections. Carefully prepared samples are required for accurate scientific identification, ideally small cubes that allow examination of three sections – transverse, radial longitudinal, and tangential longitudinal sections – under an optical microsope using transmitted (polarizing) light. Smaller samples can be examined with a scanning electron microscope, and charcoal can be identified using reflected (not transmitted) light. New methods are being developed. Non-destructive reflected light microscopy can identify some timbers. Synchrotron radiation microtomography (SRμCT), a non-destructive 3D imaging technique, can visualize the internal structures of some woods. The chemical compositions of different woods can be identified through mass spectrometry, although chemical composition changes in ancient woods that will be desiccated, charred (charcoal), or waterlogged. See C. Cartwright, ‘Understanding wood choices for ancient panel painting and mummy portraits in the APPEAR project through scanning electron microscopy’, in M. Svoboda and C. Cartwright, eds., Mummy portraits of Roman Egypt: Emerging research from the APPEAR project (Los Angeles, 2020), ch. 2 (online publication: See also N. Liphschitz, ‘Timber identification of Egyptian wooden objects: the Israeli Collection’, Tel Aviv 25 (1998), 255-76; F. Ruffinato et al., ‘Reflected light microscopy as a non-invasive identification tool for wooden artefacts’, IAWA Journal/International Association of Wood Anatomists 31/iii (2010), 317-31. See also M. Fiorivanti et al., ‘Non-invasive wood identification of historical musical bows’, IAWA Journal/International Association of Wood Anatomists 38/iii (2017), 285-96, which notes: ‘Application of Synchrotron light X-ray microtomography (µCT) in phase-contrast mode to the whole sticks allowed us to obtain stacks of transverse-sectional images that, processed as virtual volumes, revealed several anatomical features’.

[xx] P. Schneider, ‘La connaissance des mangroves tropicales dans l’Antiquité; Topoi 14 (2006), 207‑244; P. Schneider, ‘La connaissance des mangroves tropicales dans l’Antiquité (Compléments)’, Topoi 17 (2011), 353‑402; P. Schneider, ‘“On the Red Sea the trees are of a remarkable nature” (Pliny the Elder): The Red Sea mangroves from the Greco-Roman perspective’, in Human Interaction with the Environment in the Red Sea. Selected Papers of Red Sea Project VI, eds. D.A.Agius et al. (Leiden, 2017), pp. 9‑29; A. Abdel-Hamid et al., ‘Mapping mangroves extents on the Red Sea coastline in Egypt using polarimetric SAR and high resolution optical remote sensing data’, Sustainability 10 (2018), 646 (22 pages, online: doi:10.3390/su10030646).

[xxi] Hadrian had anticipated the exhaustion of tall trees in Syria-Palestine as early as the second century CE, when he raised inscribed warnings around the tallest trees of Mt Lebanon to prevent theft and misuse, reserving four species – probably cedar, pine, fir, and cypress – for imperial use. More than 200 of these inscriptions have been located and recorded. See W. V. Harris, ‘Defining and detecting Mediterranean deforestation, 800 BCE to 700 CE’, in ***, pp. 173-94, at. pp. 182-3. Also see:

[xxii] P. P. Creasman, ‘Ship timber and the reuse of wood in ancient Egypt’, Journal of Egyptian History 6 (2013), 152-76.

[xxiii] R. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993), p. 42, n. 201, lists five papyri. See also P. J.  Sijpesteijn and K. A. Worp, ‘Fourth Century Accounts from the Hermopolite Nome’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 22 (1976), 97-106, at 98-100 (= SB 14. 1159).

[xxiv] C. Bouchaud et al., ‘Fuelwood and Wood Supplies in the Eastern Desert of Egypt during Roman Times’, in The Eastern Desert of Egypt during the Greco-Roman Period: Archaeological Reports, eds. Jean-Pierre Brun et al. (Paris, 2018), online: I quote: ‘Local (LOC) taxa are those that can grow in the desert –including the mountainous area of Gebel Elba– and the Red Sea coastline. The Nilotic and oasis group (NIL) refers to plants from the Nile valley and/or from the oases of the Western Desert. Mediterranean and European/continental taxa are referred to under the same name (MEDEUR). Tropical and sub-tropical plants (TROP), most of which can grow in Asia and Africa, form the fourth group. When a taxon falls into two categories –such as reed (Arundo / Phragmites) and tamarisk, which may belong to the group of local (coast of the Red Sea) or Nilotic plants, the closest geographically group has been chosen. These decisions, while aiming to simplify the reading and processing of the data, distort a reality which is probably more complex than that illustrated by the descriptions which follow.’

[xxv] Christian trees: Arentzen (Byzantine trees with Glen Peers, hence animism) and his few saintly lives (Testament of Abraham, Irene of Chrsobalanton), including Nicholas of Sion who fells a possessed tree, liberating it even as he killed it. The holy wood is also the holy tree, thanks to the ambiguity of xylon in Greek. Viewing the world in a sacramental way (a quote, borrowed by Mary Cunningham), by which it is alive with God’s presence and that of the Theotokos in nature, etc.

[xxvi] J. Galil and D. Eiskowitch, ‘On the pollination ecology of ficus sycomorus in East Africa’, Ecology 49/ii (1968), 259-69. The trees was also later introduced to Israel/Palestine, where it is also seedless. See  J. Galil and D. Eiskowitch, ‘Flowering cycles and fruit types of ficus sycomorus in Isreal’, New Phytologist 67/iii (1968), 745-58; S. Frumin et al., ‘Studying ancient anthropogenic impacts on current floral biodiversity in the southern Levant as reflected by the Philistine migration’, Scientific Reports 5: 13308; DOi: 10.1038/srep13308

[xxvii] Medicinal uses of tree: ‘GC-MS analysis, antioxidant, antimicrobial and anticancer activities of extracts from Ficus sycomorus fruits and leaves’, … GC (gas chromatography) and MS (mass spectrometry) … Evidence for antimicrobial properties confirmed in further study: I. Toma et al., ‘Preliminary phytochemical analysis …’, European Journal of Medicinal Plants 29 (2019), 1-10. GC (gas chromatography) and MS (mass spectrometry) … Also show that they bioactive phytochemicals emitted by FS leaves have potential as natural insecticides and acaricides (arachnicides) in cultivation. (See Romeh in African Journal of Agricultural Research 2013) … Bark increased sperm production in rats, but an aqueous solution of leaves had the opposite effect. See N. A. Igbokwe et al., ‘Aqueous stem bark extract of Ficus sycomoros increases sperm production and pH of sperm microenvironment in growing albino rat’, Animal Reproduction 6/iv (2009), 509-15; C Sapka and O. Wilson, ‘Anti-spermatogenic effects of Ficus sycomorus aqueous leaf extract on testes and epididymis of adult male Wister rats’, African Scientist 20/i (2019), 1-7. Also anticorrosive properties on some metals! See K. D. Ogwo et al., ‘Corrosion inhibition of mild steel and aluminium …’