The Viking Age wooden artefacts recovered in the early 1900s from the Oseberg mound (Norway) and treated with alum, are today highly degraded. This is due to the effects of the alum-treatment and the reactivity of alum and alum-derived salts . Some of the artefacts from the Oseberg collection that were treated with alum were also coated with a drying oil: boiled linseed oil. These artefacts appear to be better preserved with respect to those not treated with linseed oil.
In order to assess the effect of linseed oil on wood preservation, an alum-treated archaeological wood fragment from the Oseberg collection treated with linseed oil was investigated by three analytical techniques: gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC/MS), pyrolysis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS) and high-performance liquid chromatography coupled to electrospray ionisation and quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry (HPLC-ESI-Q-ToF). These techniques provided important information on the molecular composition and state of preservation of both archaeological wood and aged linseed oil.
Py(HMDS)-GC/MS was applied to assess the state of preservation of the main wood components, lignin and polysaccharides, in the presence of linseed oil and alum treatments. GC/MS and HPLC-ESI-Q-ToF were used to perform lipid characterisation and to investigate the lipid degradation and oxidation processes. X-ray diffraction (XRD), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and elemental analysis by scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) were performed to give information on the corresponding inorganic components, particularly the composition and distribution of the alum.
Samples taken at different depths from the surface of the archaeological wood fragment were analysed and compared. The results showed that, although the wood was highly depleted of carbohydrates, it was better preserved than previously analysed Oseberg artefacts not treated with linseed oil. Results from GC/MS and HPLC-ESI-Q-ToF suggested that the linseed oil played a mitigating role in terms of wood degradation. The behaviour of the lipid material, which was more oxidized on the wood surface than in the core, was the opposite to that usually encountered in archaeological wood, suggesting a selective oxidation of the linseed oil.
This unusual pattern of wood degradation was not mirrored by the inorganic components: alum was found to be more abundant at the surface of the fragment than at depth, as would be expected, but no decomposition products were found. However, the alum appeared to mainly consist of ammonium salt, rather than the potassium alum documented as the treatment material for the Oseberg artefacts.
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