Addressing the Historical Demand for Special Types of Wood Craftsmanship in the Roman Imperial Period – An Environmental Diversity Assessment of Landscape Ecology

→Roman Palkoska

This study provides a new and discriminating perspective on wood resources from pre-modern economies. The demand of woods with specific material properties is explored from the Mediterranean during the Roman imperial period. The landscape heterogeneity of the Mediterranean region is considered for the growth effects of different tree species as a result of natural location factors.

The concept that large settlements can meet their demand for different wood types from their surroundings must be questioned if their environment does not allow for the growth of the desired tree species. The problem of sourcing specific wood from distant locations for use at coastal shipyards has been already mentioned by Pliny “[…] the same is the case with the fir, the wood of which is held in great esteem for shipbuilding. This tree grows upon the summits of lofty mountains as though, in fact, it had an antipathy to the sea” (Plin. Nat. Hist. 16, 42).

Ancient written sources and recent archeological studies, such as those of ship wrecks, confirm a targeted application of certain wood types for specific building components of ships (cf. Giachi et al. 2017). A need for specific woods for unique craftsmanships was meet by importing special woods from different regions where the trees could grow. A systematic and scheduled procurement of wood resources requires logistics and professional knowledge. Such understandings may include knowing that the holm oak (Quercus ilex) occurs near the coast buts the fir (Abies) and spruce (Picea) from the azonal mountain areas of the expansive Mediterranean mainland (cf. Wagner 2011, 119 f.). Logistics responsibilities included creating a linked network from the different wood locations to solve transportation problems of unwieldy tree trunks, and developing strategies to reduce transportation costs.

Following the aforementioned opening thematic complex, the following research questions will be the focus of this research project:


  1. Was there a specific use of unique types of wood in ancient crafts?
  2. Did a specific use of unique types of wood lead necessarily to demands for these varieties?
  3. From which regions with ideal location factors did specific types of wood come from?
  4. Where did specific types of wood come from and which natural location factors are present in these regions?
  5. Was an import from beyond settlement surroundings require import to meet the needs for this wood?
  6. Was there a logistics network between different regions present to satisfy the needs in wood?


To answer these research questions, this qualitative study follows the structure:


Phase 1 corresponds to an enquiry concerning the use of specific types of wood in ancient crafts. From an archaeological point of view, the research on the material “wood” is quite problematic, as wood is often not preserved but rots quickly and hence only very few ancient wooden objects are preserved (in contrast to pottery or objects made of metal or glass etc.). Therefore, an overview and summary of the different ancient woods will be compiled. Compiled data of the different woods and their uses will be discussed and included in a database from ancient writings sources. This “wood-database” will be made available to the research training group as well as to the public and will thus enable other interested parties to use the compiled data for their own research.

The ecological analysis will be conducted in phase 2 of this work. The types of wood included in the database will be analyzed from two perspectives: location and ecological factors such as climate, soil properties, and geomorphological features. The database of potentially economically relevant types of wood, compiled in phase 1, will then be made publicly accessible. This will allow the further development of the database by other possible contributors.

Phase 3 of this study represents the landscape ecology analysis of the respective types of wood through the use of a Geographical Information System (GIS). The dispersal area of the respective tree species will be mapped via the use of datasets concerning dispersal areas, and environmental factors including soil properties, climate, hydrological resources, and topography. The datasets will be combined with prior historical ecological data to gain a more detailed picture. The database will then be useful for GIS-based spatial-analysis and cost-distance-analysis between potential logging areas and ancient wood production industries.


The three-phase structure of the workflow enables a thorough and clear focus on the objectives of the research project. The researcher of this study has a Master’s degree in landscape ecology in preparation for the novel approaches to be used. The cooperation between the Institute for Historical Geography of the University of Bonn, the DFG-Research Training Group “Archeology of Pre-Modern Economies” and the Research Group “Vegetation Science and Biogeography” of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology creates an ideal interdisciplinary framework to address the complexities of this study.



Giachi, G., Capretti, C., Lazzeri, S., Sozzi, L., Paci, S., Mariotti Lippi, M. u. Nicola Macchioni (2017): Identification of wood from Roman ships found in the docking site of Pisa (Italy). In: Journal of Cultural Heritage 23, S. 176–184.

Pliny the Elder (2015): Complete Works of Pliny the Elder translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley 1855. (Delphi Publishing Ltd) Hastings, East Sussex.

Wagner, H.-G. (20112., vollst. überarb. Aufl.): Mittelmeerraum. [Geographie, Geschichte, Wirtschaft, Politik]. /WBG-Länderkunden]. (Wiss. Buchges) Darmstadt.



Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Winfried Schenk, Prof. Dr. Silviane Scharl, Prof. Dr. Sebastian Schmidtlein