Tar, Vikings and Nean­dert­hals

Taitelijan näkemys viikinkilaivasta

Cutting Edge Re­nais­sance Tech­no­lo­gy

In 1564, Sweden was ruled by king Erik XIV. His brother John’s time as Duke of Finland had ended the previous year. The seven-year war over the dominion of the Baltic Sea raged on. All of Shakespeare's plays were yet to be written, as he was born in the same year. The main export product of the Swedish region was tar.

Also in 1594, Lauri (or Lars) Kolari was registered as a settler in the village of Kolima, located in present-day Pihtipudas in Finland. Lauri was related to tar makers; the name Kolari comes from the Swedish word kolare. It means a person who makes tar by burning wood, usually in a pit made for this purpose. Coal was a by-product of the process.

At the time, it was not unusual to encounter a tar maker. Tar had been one of Sweden's main exports since at least the 14th century. It was exported especially for the needs of the British navy. Tar was used as a water repellent: hulls, masts, sails, ropes and other equipment were treated with it.

Lauri is the earliest ancestor of the Kolari family we have been able to trace. He started the Leppävirta branch of the family. From Lauri onwards, we know a great deal about the Kolari family. Compared to his ancestors, at least. However, the knowledge of tar burning as a skill extends beyond family records.

Iron Age and Vikings

Using tar for treating wood and other materials was essential in the Viking Age. Swedish researcher Andreas Hennius has studied Viking-era tar pits in the Uppland region of Sweden. The Uppland tar pits have been dated to the Iron Age, 100-400 CE. The Vikings used funnel-like pits, which were suitable for producing large quantities of tar. In this type of pit the tar flows into a container at the bottom of the pit, rather than being drained into an outside barrel through a gutter. Afterwards, the tank has to be dug out to reach the end product.

Researcher Hennius has described the scale of the viking tar production as “industrial”, at least since the 7th century . Huge pits produced up to 200-300 liters of tar at a time. Hennius concluded that tar making on this scale was essential to Viking conquests - and the whole Viking Age.

Huge pits produced up to 200-300 liters of tar at a time.

A Pleis­toce­ne Product Funnel

Although the Vikings produced copious amounts of tar, they were by no means the originators. Tar production came about long before their time, before the most recent ice age.

Modern humans settled in Europe 46,000 years ago. Here they encountered heavy-built cave dwellers, Neanderthals. Despite their primitive reputation, the Neanderthals were surprisingly versatile. One of their skills was making tar from birch bark. They mastered a method that is essentially the same as it is today, albeit on a much smaller scale. The tar was distilled from wood (birch bark in this case) by heating it in an oxygen-free state, producing small tar droplets. The Neanderthals used tar, for example, to add grip to handles of stone tools and to attach arrowheads.

Ancient tar droplets have been found in Italy, Germany and several other European countries, dating back 200,000 years.

The Neanderthals had been at it for quite some time already when our ancestors arrived on the scene. Ancient tar droplets have been found in Italy, Germany and several other European countries, dating back 200,000 years. After millennia of coexistence, the number of Neanderthals started to dwindle about 30,000 years ago. The species finally vanished, uniting in part with modern humans. Tar making as a skill continued.

Back to Lauri Kolari

With the development of agriculture, the human species started to settle. Gathering and hunting for food was no longer the responsibility of every member of the community. Roles and professions began to differentiate from one another. One member of the tribe may have been a bit more skilled in extracting our multi-purpose liquid from wood. Or perhaps he/she just enjoyed hanging about in the lingering smell of tar. He became the local “kolari” of the village; the one you could turn to when tar was needed – for sails, ropes, ships, roofs, fishing nets, even as an ailment for all sorts of ills.

Centuries went by. Generation after generation filled their barrels with tar and rolled them away to foreign lands. Until we once again catch up with Lauri Kolari ambling towards the village of Kolima – at this point a culmination of 200,000 years of tarry history.

Lauri would probably feel dizzy to hear about all this. Or shoo away the loon telling about it - with a tar brush perhaps.

The peak tar production year in Sweden was 1863: a total of 227,000 barrels of tar were produced. Once the era of wooden ships was over, the need for tar diminished. It has never ceased completely.

The next time you grab a tar product at a store – even a tar shampoo in Finland – you can cast a thought for Lauri, along with the Vikings and Britain’s mighty navy of the past. If you're lucky, you may also feel a tiny tinkling in the 1% of your DNA that’s left of Neanderthals in many of us.

Article by Juha Kolari, a member of the Kolari Family Society.