BMCR 2007.07.32

Roman Woodworking

, Roman woodworking. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiii, 376 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780300134605. $85.00.

This book offers a much more comprehensive view of ancient woodworking than its title may at first suggest. Recognizing the Roman debt to earlier traditions, Ulrich includes in his discussion also predecessors from Egypt, Phrygia, Greece, and Etruria. He draws on the standard, but still important, publications of wooden products in the Mediterranean, especially in regard to furniture (e.g., G.M.A. Richter, Ancient Furniture), but he updates their information with new material from archaeological investigations and expands upon it with remains from sites throughout the Mediterranean (as in E. Simpson’s discussions of furniture from Gordion). His purview includes both objects and architecture. He relies on three ancient sources of evidence: actual wooden remains, what he calls related artifacts (which include tools but also depictions of them and their products), and literary references from both Greek and Roman periods. These allow Ulrich to present a picture not only of the products of Roman woodworking but also of its practitioners, their tools and methods, and even their raw materials.

The book begins with an introduction (chapter I) that sets out the goals, methods, sources, and limitations of this work. It should be noted that Ulrich does not include shipbuilding in his discussion, although he does incorporate some of the shipwright’s techniques and tools. This omission would be a great loss for earlier periods, where other evidence is more limited. For Roman times, however, there is ample material for discussion and, as Ulrich explains, shipbuilding is a sufficiently specialized craft that it deserves its own study.

The first part of the book leads the reader through a series of chapters that build upon each other. In chapter II Ulrich examines the trade of woodworking. As with other crafts, practitioners were slaves, freed slaves, or landless freeborn plebeians, rather than Romans of social status. Nevertheless, as we read here and in subsequent chapters, their craft was highly specialized. Judging from the representations of tools on gravestones, the woodworker seems to have taken great pride in his skills.

Chapter III discusses these tools, although few are actually preserved. In his introduction to this chapter, Ulrich divides tools into two categories on the basis of their material: those used for measuring and marking, which were often of bronze, and those used for cutting, which employed iron blades. Still other tools are noted that do not fit either category, such as mallets, hammers, clamps, and wedges. The author then goes on to describe in some detail the individual tools and their characteristics, but in a different order. His cutting tools are treated first, in alphabetical order by their English name, yet the lathe and wedge are also included in his group. Striking tools (hammers and mallets) follow, then measuring tools, and finally a miscellaneous category that includes clamps. This arrangement hinders consultation, but the information presented is clear and thorough. Ulrich not only explains the function of each tool, but he also traces its history in the ancient world. He notes the usage in some cases (for the adze and axe) as far back as the Stone Age while others (e.g., the plane) were invented much later. Evidence for these tools is traced throughout the Mediterranean as well as Europe. This discussion clearly relies on such seminal works as W.L. Goodman’s 1964 book, The History of Woodworking Tools, but the author supplements the standard sources with new information and publications. Moreover, depictions of tools or their use form an important body of evidence in this section, as do mentions in literary sources. The author even includes an appendix at the back of the book that lists well known examples of Roman woodworking tools and their depictions in various media.

Chapter IV explores the types of joints employed in woodworking. An illustration (Fig. 4.2) as well as the corresponding section of the glossary at the back aid the reader in understanding the distinctions. Yet, as the author notes, there is no standard usage in English and one joint can have different names, which makes the designations confusing. Latin terms are likewise inadequate because extant texts contain vocabulary only for the nonspecialist. The reader must consult the illustrations and glossary frequently to follow this section. This is not always easy, however, because the glossary for this chapter (as also for some others) is divided into two parts, the first dealing with general and the second with technical terms, which requires a search of both to find the appropriate definition. In some cases (as with the word “strakes”) no definition is offered. This chapter is nevertheless generally very useful in discussing the form and application of specific joints found in architecture, ships, and furniture. The following five chapters (V-IX) deal with components of buildings: foundations, framing and walls, wooden flooring, roofing and ceilings, and interior woodwork. Whereas stone or concrete may be preferred for foundations or walls, especially in later periods, wooden piles or posts were used as foundations or supports for certain structures (such as bridges, forts, granaries, and huts) and wood provided the forms used for other materials. It continued to be important for walls, either in a half- or fully timbered construction, and in floors, roofs, ceilings, and doors.

In chapter VIII, Ulrich discusses in some detail the two methods of framing a pitched roof, using either the prop-and-lintel or the truss system. The former was employed by the Greeks and subsequently adopted by the Etruscans and Romans. There is debate as to the first appearance of the latter, but some have argued for its invention in Sicily perhaps as early as the sixth century B.C. (pp. 140-41). Ulrich suggests instead that the need to cover the large interior spaces of Roman basilicas precipitated its invention during the second century B.C. (pp. 143-44). This form allowed the construction of increasingly wider interior spaces, reaching approximately 100 Roman feet, until Late Antiquity, by which time the largest trees had probably been harvested.

Roofing the atrium of the Roman house also posed problems and here, too, Ulrich links innovations in building practices with carpentry. He explains in some detail how the Tuscan atrium was roofed. Its two massive cross-beams required considerable support, which may have been provided by the incorporation of vertical wooden or stone beams in a mud-brick wall. Yet fully stone walls offered a better solution. Thus Ulrich raises the possibility that the shift to stone and (later) concrete for walls of domestic buildings may have been influenced by the desire to incorporate an atrium and its distinctive compluvium.

The next two chapters (X and XI) examine specific products of woodworking, first wheels and then furniture and veneers. These items required specialized skills, which Ulrich makes clear in explaining the production processes. As with other topics, in his discussion of furniture Ulrich relies heavily on literary references, depictions in other media, and archaeological remains, but in this case the last piece of evidence is especially plentiful. Herculaneum has yielded a large amount of wooden furniture, and although not all of it has been inventoried, the recent study by S. T. Mols has added considerably to our knowledge of it. Using visual and textual evidence, Ulrich attempts to identify various kinds of Roman furniture. His distinction between two elaborate types of chairs, however, the cathedra (a backed chair usually with curved legs) and the solium (“throne”), is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, this chapter serves to elucidate the variety of forms and their relationship with furniture elsewhere in the ancient world. Ulrich informs us, for example, that the upright chest on legs ( armarium or wardrobe) differs from the Greek storage chest and may be a Roman invention (p. 228). The Roman couch, although similar in appearance to the bed, may have been of more fragile construction because only components survived at Herculaneum (p. 232).

The last section of chapter XI, on veneer and parquetry, leads naturally into the final two chapters of the book, which offer a classification of trees and timber (XII) and a discussion of Italian forests (XIII). The classification relies in large part on literary sources and perhaps for that reason lists trees in alphabetical order by their Latin names. This is not, however, the most convenient method for consultation by the English speaker. Yet the chapter is very useful in citing examples of the employment of these different woods in Antiquity. The availability of these various types of timber in the vicinity of Rome is demonstrated in the next, albeit short, chapter on Italian forests.

The book concludes with a large glossary of terms, which demands its own table of contents (p. 269) because of its organization by chapter and even subdivisions within a chapter. An alphabetical arrangement overall would have been more useful. There is also an extensive bibliography and an index with both English and Latin names.

If parts of the discussion or organization of this book are not always clear, the enormous amount of information and the depth of detail that it offers more than compensate for this. The author provides a thorough assessment of all aspects of woodworking in the Roman world. This book is an excellent resource for anyone seeking information on this important topic and must be considered essential reading for students of ancient construction practices and furnishings.