Correlation between bacterial decay and chemical changes in waterlogged archaeological wood analysed by light microscopy and Py-GC/MS

Nanna Bjerregaard Pedersen, Jeannette Lucejko, Francesca Modugno, Charlotte Gjelstrup Björdal

Publications: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Erosion bacteria are the main degraders of archaeological wood excavated from waterlogged environments. Light microscopy and analytical pyrolysis coupled with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS) were exploited to study waterlogged archaeological wood (Pinus sylvestris L.) at different stages of bacterial decay. The research explored the biochemical changes related to erosion bacteria degradation of the secondary cell wall in the wood cells and the chemical changes related to abiotic processes induced by the long-term waterlogged burial environment. Erosion bacteria were demonstrated by chemical analysis to cause significant holocellulose depletion. Detailed analysis of the holocellulose and lignin pyrolysis products revealed only minor chemical changes in the residual structure even after heavy erosion bacteria decay. Chemical changes in the lignin polymer is associated to enzymatic unlocking of the lignocellulose to gain access to the holocellulose fraction of the cell wall. Chemical changes in the holocellulose fraction are suggested to stem from depolymerisation and from alterations in the polymer matrix of the residual wood cell wall structure. Interestingly, a difference was observed between the sound reference wood and the waterlogged archaeological wood without erosion bacteria decay, indicating that long-term exposure in waterlogged environments results in partial decay of the holocellulose even in absence of bacterial activity.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2020


  • archaeological wood
  • erosion bacteria
  • holocellulose
  • light microscopy
  • lignin
  • Py(HMDS)-GC/MS

Artistic research

  • No

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