Decay of softwood in archaeological wooden artifacts

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Nesrin M. N. El Hadidi;


Studies in Conservation, Volume 62, Number 2, p.83-95 (2017)


Hardwoods and softwoods were used side by side throughout Egyptian history, and importing softwoods that had an attractive color and texture was common. Over the decades, artifacts based on hardwoods and softwoods underwent deterioration phenomena, sometimes reaching either a level of brittleness or turning into a wood powder that may easily crumble. These levels of decay/degradation are often difficult to handle in terms of conservation treatments. To study or identify the reasons for decay has always been a point of interest for conservation purposes, but to assess decay and choose an appropriate treatment according to the state of preservation for the sake of keeping an artifact intact has become a subject of major importance. It is difficult at times to understand the deterioration process, because hardwoods and softwoods are different in structure, properties, and chemical composition. For this preliminary study, decayed samples from three commonly used softwood types, cypress (Cupressus sp.), cedar (Cedrus sp.), and pine (Pinus sp.), were identified and chosen. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) of the samples indicated the degree of decay. Decayed and non-aged samples of the same wood type were analyzed using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), and all the major carbohydrate and lignin bands were recorded. The strong hydrogen bonded (O–H) stretching absorption associated with water linked by hydrogen bonds to the –OH groups of cellulose and hemicelluloses in all decayed samples increased with decay. The brown powdery, fragile samples that had been evidently affected by microbial decay had a higher amount of lignin. The lignin/carbohydrate ratio was calculated and results compared. The increase of either lignin percentage or extractives in some of the samples had caused a darkening of color in both cypress and cedar samples, but the pine sample did not have the same texture and appearance. In cases where the lignin percentage decreased the samples had changed to a slightly lighter color. FTIR results explained the decay phenomena observed in SEM micrographs and helped assess wood decay and also confirmed results that had been previously obtained while applying traditional chemical analysis on wood.