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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

The Industries of Yore

Timber and Pitch Tar


Historical Information

Hello and welcome to the history page. We are again fiesta-less this week, a sad condition by all counts, but one that allows us to roam freely into yesteryear, exploring whatever byways take our fancy. This week seems as good a time as any to examine the nature of island industry prior to tourism.

Ibiza's primary industry was, of course, the production of salt (see our Ibiza History Culture Archive articles from Weekly Edition 018 of Saturday 30th June 2001 and Weekly Edition 019 of Saturday 7th July 2001), but there were also several others that figured prominently. Two of these industries were timber and pitch tar, both offshoots of the abundant woodland, and both used predominately in shipbuilding. I might add that these industries were not confined to any specific period in history, but were practised down through the ages until the modern day.


Like many Mediterranean islands, Ibiza was endowed with an ideal combination of natural resources to make it a shipyard par excellence: the woodland was dense and the coastline was dotted with sandy coves where vessels could be beached and repaired, or built from scratch. Greek seafarers, in particular, were so taken by the great indigenous wealth of Ibiza and Formentera's woodland that they named the islands 'the Pitiuses', meaning 'pine-covered isles'. Considering the well-travelled and expansive worldview of Greek civilization, this appellation was no small epithet.

En Route Repairs

As practical as they were intelligent, Hellenic traders singled out the resource they found most attractive about Ibiza: its cornucopia of shipbuilding materials. The "Ulyssian" nature of ancient commerce made it imperative to have outposts along the trade routes where repairs could be made and Ibiza lent itself perfectly to this task. Not only was there timber for the taking, there was also the possibility of obtaining pitch, a thick sticky substance made from the resinous sap of pine trees and used in sealing ships.

The age-old method of repairing leaky hulls consisted of beaching and careening the vessels, plugging the cracks with hemp fibres and sealing the wound with pitch. If the damage was severe, rotten planks would be replaced by new ones and the fresh joints then sealed with hemp and pitch. An interesting fact is that, not only was pitch was one of antiquity's only water-proof substances, but it became even more impermeable upon contact with sea water.

Tar Ovens

It seems probable that the Greeks introduced a special kind of oven to Ibiza for the purposes of pitch production. I have made extensive use of Rafael Sainz's interesting book, The Tales of Mel, for my information. He explains that the Greeks were the first people to employ ovens in this endeavour. (The alternate method was to boil down the sap in cauldrons). The Greeks, however, preferred to use ovens and disseminated this technology among neighbouring lands. Sainz informs us that, "The remains of some of (these original) tar ovens, similar to those found in Ibiza . . . can still be seen on various Greek islands and along the Adriatic coastline in the most wooded areas."

Although they never set up a permanent colony in Ibiza, it would appear from the foregoing evidence that Greek seafarers stopped regularly in Ibiza and brought their shipbuilding craft with them.

Tar, A Sticky Issue

Leaving the Greek question behind, the production of pitch came to be, in time, one of Ibiza's most important industries. By the 13th century, the enterprise was so highly regarded that frequent conflicts arose as to who the rightful exploiter should be. One dispute involved the age-old feud between Church and State, in this case the former being personified by the Archbishop of Tarragona, the island's ecclesiastic authority, and the latter by the King of Majorca, the island's temporal authority. Both entities asserted rightful ownership of the Ibicenco forest, with its lucrative timber industry and derivatives, each party eager to lay claim to the handsome profits these generated.

Actually, the marketing of pitch was a very delicate issue. As Sainz points out, " . . . in times when a well-sealed boat was a potential enemy that could attack, rob and destroy at any moment," the government had to be extremely cautious to whom they sold this precious stuff. He further informs us that, "According to documents stored in ancient archives, tar produced in Ibiza was better than any other found along the coastlines of the Mediterranean. The authorities therefore supervised its production and commercialization, as it was a rare commodity which was frequently unavailable."

Another indication of this industry's importance to Ibiza's pre-tourism economy is the abundance of tar ovens found on the island. To date, about thirty of them have been discovered throughout the woodland and catalogued by local historians. Also revealing is the frequency of place names that make reference to this activity. Sainz points out several: "Near the village of San José there is a puig de sa Pega (Sticky Peak) and near the village of San Antonio there is a puig de sa Tea (Pitch Peak). On the island of Formentera can be found a torrent de sa Tea (Pitch Gully), out on the Barbary Cape."

Considerations of a Higher Order

Also included in The Tales of Mel is a wonderful account of the veneration that the Ibicenco woodland evoked in the generations of yore. In chapter 20, Sainz paints a colourful pen-portrait of a shipbuilder from Valencia who, during the 1940s, came to Ibiza for a visit. This master woodworker amazed the author and his brother, still small lads at the time, with "the secrets of trees in Ibiza", an arboreal ensemble which the naval craftsman zealously raised to the status of "enchanted forest."

"Because of these trees," he told the boys, "the Greeks baptized these idyllic islands with the magical name of the Pitiuses: by this name they were known along the shipping routes that run from the Orient to the Occident. And they were also known as such in the travellers' tales of classical historians. They were singled out, above all other known shores and islands as an extraordinary site, and well worth seeing: not only because they are beautiful and possess all the qualities and more to be regarded as a sacred place . . . (but) because of the shape and quality of their trees, and because of the rapid and spontaneous re-growth which made them an inexhaustible source of wood, so rich and cheap."

Salt Curing

Traditionally in Ibiza trees were felled during the winter months when their sap was at its lowest ebb. The dressed trunks were then hauled to the sea and submerged for several weeks in the salt water. This process partially petrified the wood, making it both more resilient and more durable for naval construction. (As an interesting note, trunks thus fortified were also used as roof beams in domestic construction).

The saltiest water on the island, and therefore the best for treating wood, was at ses Salines salt-works. Therefore, whenever possible, the freshly cut timber would be brought to this site and cured in the salt pans. Conveniently, at this time of year salt production was in a dormant stage, eliminating any conflict of interest between the two industries. Another plus is that coverage of the trunks was at a maximum because the pans were still quite full before the rapid evaporation that would occur as the weather became warmer.

When the time was right, the timber would be removed from its salt-water cure, transported to the various shipyards around the island and crafted into extraordinarily seaworthy vessels. The higher mysteries of this process are described by Sainz's Valencian who explained that through the ages shipbuilders used "the direction of the grain in the wood in such as way that the orientation of the timber [would] help the elasticity of the good Aleppo pine to provide the strength needed for navigation with sail and oar."

The craftsman carries on in a rather esoteric vein, revealing that "The shapes and dimensions are embedded into the bodies of the trees . . . Not one of them is straight, they are all leaning, or curved, or have other rare tendencies, depending on winds: for initiates in naval construction they are part of a kind of magical art, in which each piece fits perfectly into the final puzzle, as if prefabricated by the hand of Neptune. These are sacred timbers . . . the secret of (Ibiza's) forests."

Whether the Ibicenco woodland was, in fact, endowed with some magical essence that heightened the quality of its timber, or whether it was simply the process of salt-curing rendered them superior, is up to each reader to decide for himself. What can be said is that, based on the investigations of ancient shipwrecks, there is reason to believe that the art of shipbuilding - following the method just described - was practised from at least the 8th and 7th centuries BC until the early 20th century.

Join us next week when we'll sail to Formentera for the fiestas of Sant Francesc Javier.

Emily Kaufman