Stringed instruments can be worth millions of dollars, especially those made in northern Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are also many copies and counterfeits.
As a forest ecologist, I use dendrochronology – or tree ring dating – to understand how trees grow, as well as to study historical environmental conditions. Tree ring widths vary with weather conditions, so samples can be cross dated with ring width series databases.
In 2010, I was an expert witness in a court case involving a viola allegedly made in the 16th century. I agreed with two laboratories who had independently concluded that it could not have been made before the end of the 18th century.
Dendrochronology cannot precisely date an instrument’s date of manufacture, but it can identify the most recent year that the wood it was made from was part of a growing tree. Tree rings give probabilities and levels of confidence in a date based on the availability of suitable reference series.
Dendrochronological analyzes can produce conflicting dates, creating confusion about the reliability of the method. The most famous example is the “Messiah” violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716. In 1999, doubts were raised as to its authenticity when, among other reasons, tree-ring analysis revealed that the instrument did not could not have been made before 1738, a year after Stradivari’s death. The discovery was based on examining a photograph of the instrument, and was later retracted. The controversy has highlighted the limits of the technique for verifying the authenticity of musical instruments.
I also use dendrochronology to understand the impacts of droughts, and am fascinated by how trees grow, how water is transported through them, and whether species differences are evolutionary adaptations.