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Roman Woodworking

Roman Woodworking

Roger B. Ulrich
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Roman Woodworking
    Book Description:

    This book presents an authoritative and detailed survey of the art of woodworking in the ancient Roman world. Illustrated with over 200 line drawings and photographs,Roman Woodworkingcovers topics such as the training and guild memberships of Roman carpenters, woodworking tools and techniques, the role of timber in construction and the availability of trees, and interior woodwork and furniture making. It also includes an extensive glossary of fully defined terms.This comprehensive book displays the accomplishment of the Roman woodworkers and their high skill and knowledge of materials and tools. Ulrich helps bring to light the importance of wooden projects and structures in Roman daily life and provides a wealth of information not only for classicists but also for those interested in the history of technology and the history of woodworking.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13460-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations of Ancient Sources
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. I Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Wood was arguably the most valuable natural resource utilized by the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. Wood was a primary, and in some cases the only, component of tools, housing, household implements, modes of transportation, containers, and scaffolding. Many large public structures, from bridges to theaters, were built of wood. Wood was used as well for dyes, waterproofing materials, and pipes; it provided the sole source of energy for cooking, heating, smelting, and firing clay.

    The cultivation, harvesting, transportation, and working of wood in a world without heavy machinery or power tools must have employed many people. Some of these...

  6. II The Roman Woodworker
    (pp. 6-12)

    Plutarch, writing in his native Greek about the quasi-legendary second king of Rome, attributed the organization of skilled workers into associations, or guilds, to the earliest generations of Romans. Plutarch himself lived and wrote over seven hundred years after Numa was thought to have ruled (at the end of the eighth century B.C.), but the historian’s notion that skilled workers were recognized and organized from a very early period was shared by other Latin writers such as Pliny. From such literary passages as well as inscriptions we know that Roman woodworking belonged to a larger group of manual skills practiced...

  7. III The Tools of the Trade
    (pp. 13-58)

    Like their modern counterparts, the tools of a Roman woodworker were precious assets. Each handmade instrument represented a significant investment. Some, as we shall see, were implements crafted with decorative flourishes to have their own aesthetic appeal. We have already noted that those Roman craftsmen who could afford a fine tomb included carved representations of their tools next to their names, yet the tools themselves were not generally included as grave goods. Presumably these were handed down from father to son as an important part of a simple estate.

    Woodworkers’ tools can be divided into two general categories. First are...

  8. IV Joints
    (pp. 59-71)

    The fundamental skill of the woodworker throughout the ages has been measured by his ability to join securely—and with elegance—two pieces of wood (hence the Englishjoinerandjoinery,derived from the Latiniunctura). Sound wooden joints do not require metal fasteners, but the use of nails and metal plates, such as gussets, makes the task easier. The woodworker needs greater skill and expends more time in making strong joints of wood alone. In the ancient world, wood-to-wood joints were often made without the use of glue, nails, or clamps, although all these aids were known; many fine...

  9. V Foundations
    (pp. 72-89)

    A revealing passage concerning the role of wood in everyday construction, in this case a farmhouse (villa rustica), is included as a kind of model contract in Cato’sde Re Rustica,written ca. 160 B.C.: “If you are contracting for the building of a villa from the ground up, it is the contractor’s obligation to make the following: all the walls, as has been specified, of stone and mortar, piers made from cut stone, all the wooden beams which are needed for the job, thresholds, (door)posts, lintels, supports, and (floor?) boards’’ (Rust. 14.1).¹

    In this passage Cato, a conservative Roman...

  10. VI Framing and Walls
    (pp. 90-110)

    Wood played a vital role in ancient construction long before the utilization of mud brick, stone, and fired brick. Even when fired brick, masonry, and concrete construction prevailed during the first through third centuries A.D., stout framing timbers were still essential structural and decorative elements in most Roman buildings. Raising walls of concrete or cut stone required wooden scaffolding. Vaults were built upon semicylindrical wooden forms. For agricultural and military buildings, wood was always an indispensable resource; many such structures were built entirely of timber. Large public temporary structures, including theaters and amphitheaters, were built entirely of wood, and wooden...

  11. VII Wooden Flooring
    (pp. 111-122)

    Wooden flooring was found everywhere in the Roman world; its construction required substantial expenditures of both manual labor and materials. Wooden floors were especially important in buildings like warehouses, in which dry storage space, particularly for grain, was desired, and, most commonly, in multistoried structures like apartment buildings (insulae), living or storage areas on the upper levels of Roman houses, galleries and porticoes, and the mezzanines of small shops. Buildings constructed with flat roofs, a form of open-air flooring (Plin. HN 36.186), were covered with wooden structures essentially identical to those made for interior floors.

    The ground floors of the...

  12. VIII Roofing and Ceilings
    (pp. 123-177)

    The visible part of a Roman roof was its external protective sheathing, originally of thatch or wooden shingles (scandulae) or even packed clay (Vitr. 2.1.3). Pan (tegula) and cover (imbrex) tiles of fired clay were introduced in the seventh century B.C. (Cifani 1994). By the imperial period some important public buildings were protected with roofing fashioned from stone or bronze. Wooden shingles were undoubtedly phased out to lessen the danger from lightning strikes and flying sparks.

    Cornelius Nepos, the historian and biographer of the first century B.C., claimed that shingles of wood protected buildings in Rome down to the third...

  13. IX Interior Woodwork Opus Intestinum
    (pp. 178-201)

    Woodwork occupied a prominent place in the treatment of Roman interior spaces; it is the missing component of an environment now understood primarily through stone mosaic, marble revetment, and stuccoed walls. The contributions of the finish carpenter would have been found in both high- and low-status construction.

    The Latin termopus intestinum(‘‘inside work’’) explicitly indicates interior woodwork: door and window frames, cornice moldings, decorative paneling, balconies, screens, and built-in cabinetry.Opus intestinumbeing a distinct term that appears in both literary sources and on funerary inscriptions, there is every reason to believe its practitioner was a specialist with many...

  14. X Wheels
    (pp. 202-212)

    The wheels of the carts, wagons, and chariots of the Roman world were of wooden parts often reinforced with metal. The craft of the wheelwright was characteristically conservative; changes in methods of construction occurred slowly over a span of time measured in centuries. When innovations were introduced, older methods of construction were not necessarily eclipsed. Techniques used by Roman wheelwrights were themselves of venerable age and, to a remarkable degree, practiced by their successors with little change for another thousand years or more—in some parts of Europe and England well into the twentieth century.

    The skills mastered by the...

  15. XI Furniture and Veneers
    (pp. 213-238)

    Over the past century a number of publications for a broad range of audiences have appeared on the subject of Greco-Roman furniture. The topic was considered with special zeal in the nineteenth century, when craftsmen and homeowners consciously imitated classical examples to furnish their revival-style homes. Handbooks such as J. Pollen’sAncient and Modern Furniture and Woodwork,published in 1875, reached a large audience and provided models for imitation (fig. 11.1). In the last quarter of the twentieth century, studies of ancient furniture focused less on aesthetics and more upon the technical abilities of the ancient craftsman; much of recent...

  16. XII Classification of Trees and Species of Timber
    (pp. 239-262)

    Cato, Vitruvius, and Pliny devote lengthy comment to the suitability of individual species for certain applications and the best times for harvesting wood. They also offer their opinions on how best to protect wood intended for construction from moisture and decay. Much of this knowledge was certainly passed from woodworker to woodworker, from father to son, or through apprenticeship, just as it is today. Indeed, it is surprising that so much practical information was committed towriting and subsequently preserved.

    Roman craftsmen were attentive to selecting the most suitable timber for a given task, but when necessity prevailed they could compromise....

  17. XIII The Forests of Italy
    (pp. 263-268)

    It is beyond the scope of this book to offer a full discussion of the forests of Italy or of the immense tracts of timber found in other parts of the Roman world that were harvested to the benefit of Roman woodworkers. Nevertheless, it would be remiss not to offer some comments about the nature of the forests, especially in the regions around Rome, which provided the raw materials for Roman carpenters and craftsmen.

    The dominating presence of the Mediterranean Sea around Italy and its maritime neighbors has created a climate that produces fairly stable temperatures and predictable, if intermittent,...

  18. Glossary of Roman Woodworking Terms
    (pp. 269-336)
  19. Appendix: Archaeological Evidence of Roman Woodworking Tools
    (pp. 337-348)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 349-352)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 353-364)
  22. Index
    (pp. 365-376)