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Wood identification 

man in a lab taking a sample from a wooden figure

Alex Wiedenhoeft identified Guaiacum sp | ., as the carving material for the SLAM duho | . Here he is extracting a radiocarbon sample from the sapwood section of the duho.

Identifying the wood used for the carvings gives us insights into the choices artists made and the possible reasons and meanings behind these choices. All four of the wood sculptures discussed here were carved from Guaiacum sp. | , one of the world’s hardest woods. Its difficult to carve even with today’s metal tools, yet the Taíno were carving this demanding material with stone and shell tools.

Select the thumbnails below to see the impressions left by different tools carving into Guaiacum sp.

Impressions left by different woodworking tools (not to scale): signature adze marks featuring tool use-wear grooves and nicks. Impressions left by different woodworking tools (not to scale): signature adze marks featuring tool use-wear grooves and nicks. Impressions left by different woodworking tools (not to scale): heavy scarring from adzing and scraping tools.

Of particular interest is how the Taíno viewed trees as both practical and symbolic resources. Early Spanish documents indicate that for the Taíno, carving itself was much more than a practical activity, with one account relating how a tree ‘spoke’ to the carver, telling him how it was to be carved into a cemí . Was the choice to carve Guaiacum  sp. dictated by practical considerations – for example, a decay-resistant wood chosen to ensure the durability of the final product – esoteric reasons, or a combination of both?

extremely magnified detail of the wood cell structure

A micrograph image of Guaiacum sp. sanctum (transverse section) showing the wood’s characteristic cell structure. Scale bar is 500 um. Image: Alex Wiedenhoeft.

Further information

Wood identification was undertaken by Alex Wiedenhoeft of the US Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, Center for Wood Anatomy Research. |