How would a violin case decompose if it was buried outside for 20 years?
June 10, 2019 5:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a piece of fiction. A violin case with a black leather exterior, something like this one, is buried in a forest for 20 years. How would the case look once unearthed? What kind of shape would the violin itself be in? Details below the fold.

Imagine it's buried in a shady pine forest away from any water sources, only 2-3 feet below ground. Climate-wise, the average winter temperature is just a few ticks below freezing, with a fair bit of snow; summers are quite hot (32 °C / 90 °F), though the heat is quite dry (more arid, less humid).

Case:

- What colour would the case likely have changed after 20 years in those conditions?
- What other kind of visible damage would there be (if any of note)?

Violin:

- Assuming the case has a plush interior like this, how would the instrument be damaged? E.g., would the strings have tightened and snapped, or gone slack, due to temperature? Would there be visible damage elsewhere?

Also, if you know the kind of expert I could consult to ask this, please share! I'm not sure who specializes in such things. (Maybe a leather repair person and a violin maker?)
posted by Beardman to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not an expert either, but I'd think that if there's enough water in the soil to sustain trees then there's likely to be enough small-to-microscopic life forms to eat most of it. That snow is going to melt and soak in, probably more than once a season. When I was in woodworking school I watched a couple of violins being built. The glues used to hold them together are not water-resistant. Their structures are inherently intolerant of wide swings in moisture content; a lot of the joints would fail very quickly if exposed to sustained high humidity like what I'd expect underground in any forest, so assume it's at best a pile if parts, not an intact instrument. Leather's probably long gone. Roots might be growing through it. There might not be much to find aside from the brass hardware and maybe some synthetic fabric or padding from the lining.
posted by jon1270 at 6:33 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]


This article from 2016 in the Washington post might help
posted by donut_princess at 7:26 PM on June 10


Short answer is that the violin would be very badly damaged and beyond repair for the reasons described above. Some of the wood might well remain, depending on the type of polish/finish that was applied to it. But it wouldn’t be repairable.

Here’s “A treatise on the structure and preservation of the violin and all other bow-instruments; together with an account of the most celebrated makers, and of the genuine characteristics of their instruments” from 1860.

Also, if you know the kind of expert I could consult to ask this, please share!

Luthiers who specialize in “archtop” instruments, particularly (obviously) violins. There are lots of violin repair/restoration videos made by luthiers that you can find pretty easily.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:33 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I think you would want to ask an Environmental scientist with expertise in soil microbiology. I know a little, I don't know a lot.

Leather for certain would be gone. I would think the wood in the case would likely have been degraded by fungi or at least look like a rotting forest tree and be very brittle. Nylon is susceptible to hydrolysis, so if the soil was particularly wet or acidic that would definitely break it down (snap it, cause breaks in it).
posted by BeeJiddy at 9:27 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


My husband's a luthier. He says it would be mush -- nothing left but the strings and any metal on the case or instrument.
posted by shadygrove at 10:02 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


Violins are held together with water-soluable glue, and can fall apart even in an un-air conditioned classroom in the South over the summer; temperature and humidity swings will destroy an instrument, and with a melting snow pack yearly best-case scenario is it is a pile of barely recognizable parts (maybe the pegs and fingerboard, which are made of harder wood) with some rusty strings atop. There are long metal screws to hold the chinrest on the instrument so those and maybe a rusty E string fine tuner might make it.
posted by charmedimsure at 10:14 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I think the kind of expert you wish to consult is the kind of expert who restores vintage/historic instruments. For instance, someone who works at The Met's Musical Instruments division. There are also some sure-to-be-helpful links for you on this page from The Smithsonian.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:14 PM on June 10


Here's a violin (with images) that was soaked in a house fire:

The violin itself was falling apart, the ribs where coming unglued and changing shape, the lining and corner blocks had already come unglued

And that's after just a day or two of being wet.

Here's an experiment conducted by a luthier where he immerses a violin in water (and in a case!) overnight (also with images).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:35 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


I would think the wood in the case would likely have been degraded by fungi or at least look like a rotting forest tree and be very brittle. Nylon is susceptible to hydrolysis, so if the soil was particularly wet or acidic that would definitely break it down (snap it, cause breaks in it).

About the case: as noted, most of those hard-sided cases are actually made of wood, with a polyester plush interior and a faux-leather (or real at higher price points) exterior. Is yours an expensive case or cheap one? If expensive, leather on the inside and polyester on the inside, if cheap, some kind of PVC-like plastic fake leather on the outside and the same poly fluff in the inside. Between is wood. So it is a three-layer case and each of the layers would decompose differently and probably split away from each other in different ways, you might think about how to describe the texture of a decomposed three-layer case. Ick.
posted by epanalepsis at 8:48 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Googling revealed several stories about buried violins including one from the Titanic:
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posted by defreckled at 10:38 AM on June 11


Thanks, all! Glad I asked! :)
posted by Beardman at 8:21 PM on June 11


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