Stinky Wood, or the Byzantine Harbour at Yenikapi

Cornell University has a world-famous dendrochronology lab. Well, world-famous to people who keep tabs on things like dendrochronology labs. My advisor, Prof. Sturt Manning, is the director of the lab and after I took his dendro course at Cornell, I spent a semester working in the lab for some extra money. One of these days I’m sure I’ll write a post about all of the very cool things that you can do with dendro. Because they are VERY cool. But this post is going to be about dendro samples. Specifically the samples from a site known to the Cornell dendro lab as YNK, or Yenikapi.

The problem with being a grunt in the dendro lab is that you get to work on the material that no one else wants to. When I worked in the lab the post-docs and full-time researchers all had their own personal projects, and the students in the dendro course were given some choice in what kind of material to work on for their final projects. This left for the techs the samples that were hard to work with, boring (there are only so many cedar cores you can read from Cyprus before you want to gouge your eyes out), or… the wood from Yenikapi.

For the past three years the lab at Cornell has been flooded with samples from Yenikapi. The lab techs don’t get told too much about the samples that they are working on. Its just another piece of wood that has to be prepped appropriately, stuck underneath a microscope, and have each of its rings read and recorded in the computer to the precision of 1/100,000th of a meter. That’s 100ths of a millimeter. But even when we didn’t know what Yenikapi meant, me knew what having to work on Yenikapi meant.

See, there are four main kinds of wood that come into a dendro lab. First are your samples from living or recently deceased trees. Theses are cores or slices, usually in really good condition, that just need to be mounted and then sanded to a beautiful mirror finish before they can be read. Second are cores or slices taken from older decease trees… these might come from the wood used in a historical building or from an artifact like a piece of furniture, a coffin, or even the wood panel backing to a Rembrandt. Likewise these must be mounted and sanded, but often the wood isn’t in as good condition and the samples can be smaller and more fragile. The third and fourth categories of samples are the types found in archaeological or paleontological contexts, as they are ancient wood that has been somehow preserved. The third category is burnt wood, or charcoal, as once the wood has been reduced to carbon it usually doesn’t decay any further, unless it is damaged by water or impact (microscopic flakes of burnt wood can’t have the rings read!). The charcoal is wrapped with cotton string and masking tape to stabilize it, and then a clean surface is prepared for reading with a razor blade. The fourth and final category of sample is wet wood. Yenikapi is wet wood.

When wood or other organic material is submersed in water it doesn’t decay the same way it would on land, as there is no oxygen present. However, wood usually isn’t submersed in perfectly clear distilled water, and the salt, other chemicals, and biological agents found in the water have a definite effect. This is why sunken ships and old piers last so long, even for thousands of years, but not forever. The wood becomes dark and discolored, the structure of the wood becomes completely saturated and spongy, and finally it does eventually disintegrate. It can also be pretty gross. To get a smooth surface that allows the rings to be read, the sharpest razor blades must be used, and even they can often only make two or three cuts before they become too dull, and instead of shaving the surface of the delicate sample, you smoosh it into unrecognizable goo or fluff it into a cashmere sweater. The frustration of prepping wet wood must be experienced to be truly appreciated, and takes a remarkable amount of patience, which I really didn’t possess. There was lots of swearing involved. Thank god they put that lab in the basement and the prep room behind its own heavy door.

Additionally, wet wood samples aren’t sent into the lab submersed in water as they were found, as it simply isn’t practical. Instead the wood sample is tagged, and while still dripping wet its sealed in a Zip-Lock baggie. Now ideally, the air is removed from the bag, but its nearly impossible to get it all out, and sometimes the air removal step is skipped entirely. So, take organic material, and stick it in a moist environment in the presence of oxygen, and what do you get? Mold! Mildew! Fungi! Louis Pasteur would be horrified. Not to mention all the weird little insects from the water and the wood which just keep on merrily reproducing! I have seen wet wood under a microscope that looked like the surface of some alien planet, covered in a dense forest of bizzare trees and giant toadstools. It even has its own unique lifeforms, as bright orange and silver and even translucent insects scurry through the spongy remains of the wood.


But really, its the smell that gets to you. Because the wood from Yenikapi is oak that was submerged in the filthy stinking harbour of Istanbul back when it was still Constantinople. Some of it came from the hulls of sunken ships and some from the pilings of the Byzantine piers, but eventually this part of the harbour was filled in, most likely with garbage and household refuse and lord knows what else (the same way Manhattan was expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries), and after sitting down there, muddy and foul for over a thousand years, the whole area gets ripped up during the construction of a new subway system, and the archaeologists swarm in to do their thing.

And several hundred pieces of wood with the consistency of an overcooked souffle and a scent that falls somewhere between a high school linebacker’s jock strap and a rodent that’s been dead for a week, with notes of decaying seaweed, sewage, and the acrid tang of seawater, end up half a world away in the Cornell dendro lab.

The archaeological work on the site has steadily increased since the site’s discovery in 2004, as the Turkish government really wants to move forward with construction, and as a result more and more Yenikapi samples have flooded the lab each year. There was so much of it this year, that I heard its all the students or the lab techs get to work on. For once, I am thankful for my thesis.

CNN article about the construction at Yenikapi
Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory
excellent Saudia Aramco World article about the archaeology


4 thoughts on “Stinky Wood, or the Byzantine Harbour at Yenikapi

  1. Our Dad had a good question: Is there no way to do this with a controlled freezing process of some kind? I understand that basic freezing could break your cell walls, and leave you with even more goo, so it might be problematic. . .

  2. Originally, I detested working with the wet wood samples from Istanbul’s Yenikapi site. There seemed to be a never-ending supply of smelly, icky samples that were incredibly frustrating and difficult to analyze due to their sometimes poor preservation and limited ring counts. However, after visiting the vast Yenikapi excavation site this past summer, retrieving samples myself, and talking with the excavators and preservationists, my opinion of working with the samples has been drastically transformed.

    It is always difficult for laboratories of any kind to train students or new technicians in laboratory procedures while simultaneously immersing them in the site-specific details of their samples. As a student trained by the Cornell Tree-ring Lab, I myself was at first most concerned with properly preparing samples, reading and analyzing the rings, and comparing the immediate, quantitative results. Following these procedures when working with the Yenikapi samples and minute charcoal samples from various sites was definitely frustrating because of the care and patience that preparing and analyzing them necessitated. The subsequent application of these analytical results to history and archaeology often took a back-seat in my initial studies. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere of the lab and, more importantly, the feeling of contributing to a larger research effort.

    Working as a research assistant for the lab this past summer enabled me to participate in a sample collection trip around Southern Europe, which included spending several days in Istanbul and visiting and collecting samples from the Yenikapi excavation site, which contains features up to 8,000 years old. I was amazed at the incredible preservation of wood on-site. Under the supervision of the excavation directors, I was able to walk on the now-dry Byzantine sea floor, several meters below the modern-day sea level, next to the frames of Byzantine ships, which had sunk in the harbor, in situ. We obtained sections from selected wood posts that served as the busy Byzantine harbor docks. Excavation maps, detailing the location of each sample, were provided by the excavators to assist in the eventual site interpretation. Being immersed in the wood samples’ contexts certainly motivated me to understand the history behind the tree-rings. Moreover, meeting with the Director of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri) and being requested to help interpret the wood findings from the harbor for the Museum’s summer exhibition of Yenikapi, as part of the celebration of Istanbul’s being named the 2010 European Capital of Culture, affirmed the significance of the Cornell Tree-ring Lab’s collaboration in the completion of the Yenikapi Project.

    Why are so many Yenikapi samples needed? The laboratory would absolutely love to be able to collect only one sample from each of the various archaeological features of the harbor and be able to assign them accurate dates. However, such a collection procedure is not possible due to the quality of the wood. First, the each wood sample typically contains only 40-100 annual growth rings. Such low ring-counts necessitate the cross-dating of at least several samples to ensure the accuracy of absolute dating. Second, the preservation of these wood samples frequently distorts the tree-ring widths, and third, single wood samples may possess irregular growth patterns. Therefore, even if samples with larger ring-counts were obtained, a number of samples are necessary to accurately cross-date the wood features.

    After a major attempt at reorganization of the laboratory was completed by the lab staff this past summer, ease of access to all of the lab’s samples has been improved for students and staff. Furthermore, efforts have been made to raise awareness among the students and new technicians of the importance of understanding the context from which their samples were obtained and of collaborating in larger projects. Entering the lab today, one will see that pictures, plans, and descriptions of the sites currently being studied are readily visible and accessible for use by the students and staff.

    I believe that being able to virtually or physically visit a place about which one is researching changes the way in which he or she views his or her research. I certainly no longer see the Yenikapi samples as isolated, smelly and icky objects, but view the minor inconveniences associated with their preparation and analysis as a challenge in the interpretation of a broader, worthwhile project. Bring on the mold and fungi!

    1. Rachel, I certainly agree with you completely, and I hope you have not taken my blog to seriously! My goal here is to take a light-hearted, yet informative approach to vaguely archaeological topics in the news, in order to educate the public. Since I haven’t even spoken about how cross-dating works or the uses of Dendro yet, I merely wished to call attention to the Cornell Dendro Lab’s work on a major international project and a humorous take on my brief experience working on the samples from the site. A serious treatment of the topic waits for another day, and I was simply reminded of my initial impressions of the wood at Yenikapi by the recent news articles.

      Good to hear from you though, and thank you for the contribution! So are you coming back next year to run the lab? Or did you apply to PhD programs?

      1. 🙂 I totally understand that you’re taking a “light-hearted, yet informative approach to vaguely archaeological topics in the news, in order to educate the public.” I think that your approach is excellent. I was dying laughing after reading your recollection of the wet wood samples and recalling my own disgust. I simply wanted to emphasize that our view as archaeologists and scientists, instead of being, “Eww, mold! Yuck,fungi! Ahh, bugs!” is actually, “Eww! Mold, fungi, and bugs! This could be an interesting sample…better get my noseplug and gloves!” Thanks for another informative and entertaining blog!

        I will be taking the year off (to work) next year before applying to PhD programs, and I am waiting to see if the lab has the means to hire me. Alternatively, I look forward to some other year-long adventure! Please keep me updated with your adventures on the West Coast!

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