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in association with, click hereRoman Woodworking
by Roger B. Ulrich

“This book treats Roman woodworking from a broad perspective, building upon the works of predecessors and offering new analysis and evidence. Greater emphasis will be placed on tangible evidence than on speculative reconstructions. The topic is a vast one, and it would be presumptuous if not impossible to cover every dimension of the woodworker's trade in a single volume. At an early stage in the project it was decided not to integrate the subject of shipbuilding as a discrete topic. While some of the techniques of joinery and tools used by shipwrights are included in the study presented here, the techniques of lofting, constructing, and outfitting wooden ships are complicated enough to deserve a comprehensive treatment of their own. Even with these self-imposed limitations, the present volume aspires to examine the language and the practice of Roman woodworking through the types of literary and archaeological evidence just described, in a way that a classicist, historian, or modern woodworker can understand.”  (from the Introduction)

This is an amazing book! The chapter titles alone give an idea of its scope.

The Roman Woodworker
The Tools of the Trade
Framing and Walls
Wooden Flooring
Roofing and Ceilings
Interior Woodwork – opus intestinum
Furniture and Veneers
Classification of Trees and Species of Timber Used by Roman Woodworkers
The Forests of Italy
In addition, there is what the author describes as “a comprehensive glossary of Roman Woodworking terms, organized so that words connected with woodworking and the timber industry can be consulted in either Latin or English. Definitions fall under the Latin terms, where they are known; English equivalents are cross-indexed. Each definition concludes with a sampling of quotations from Latin authors to illustrate how the term was used in an ancient literary context.”

While the book aims at classicists, historians, and modern woodworkers, it is a great source too for ordinary folk with an enquiring mind and interested in the Ancient Roman world. Alas, the price will be a deterrent to many non-professionals. No surprise though, given the huge number of illustrations, actually over 200!

The book is written in an easy prose, and the illustrations are photographs from museums and other institutions as well as models and drawings by the author himself, plus the occasional chart or table. The 400-page figure is deceptive, as the book is printed in the rather narrow Quadraat font, which takes a bit of adjustment to aging eyes.

The author draws heavily on ancient historians, among them Pliny’s Natural History, Vitruvius’ On Architecture, Isidore’s Origins, Strabo’s Geography, and Cato’s de re rustica. Archaeological data include tools of all imaginable kinds, other artifacts, paintings from Herculaneum, scenes from Trajan’s Column, the latter frequently referenced, and even a gilt decorated glass vessel in the Vatican Museum; and dedicatory and funerary monuments, which show many tools and working scenes. The paintings and the Column present mainly architectural structures, but not exclusively. Ongoing excavations are referred to, especially in Britain/London, where tons of waterlogged timber have been exposed. In addition, Mr. Ulrich references a number of modern authors, beginning with Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern (Hugo Blümner, 1884). Until now, this topic had been mainly addressed by European scholars.

Despite all this evidence, the author points out in the chapter The Roman Woodworker, we do not know much about the craftsmen themselves. Who, where and what is largely speculation, and even the House of the Craftsman (Casa del Fabbro) in Pompeii may not be what it seems, the presumed house of a chest and furniture maker. Even guilds, the collegia, may not have had restrictions to a particular trade. At best, comparisons to and deductions from other trades can be made. We do know a large number of subspecialties of the craft from their names. And like all artisans, woodworkers took great pride in their craft, as can be deduced from funerary monuments.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, many tools basically remained unchanged. The chapter Tools of the Trade discusses tools and measuring instruments exhaustively and with many illustrations.

Chapters III. through VIII. deal with various types and stages of construction. This includes bridges, which at a minimum had wooden pilings. From the Pons Sublicius (the “pile bridge”) in Rome, the location of which has not yet been discovered – though Mr. Ulrich has not given up hope – and which may have been a timber-covered bridge, it's a short step to Caesar’s famous bridge across the Rhine (BGall 4.17), which merits the full quote and additional discussion. Later on, in another context, we learn about Trajan’s bridge over the Danube, known from Trajan’s Column and a second-hand description by Dio Cassius (68.13.1.).

House construction – from the presumed 8th century B.C. Palatine huts on – takes its proper and detailed place, from foundation to roofing, and large structures such as wooden amphitheatres are discussed also. Wooden flooring, the author writes, can be traced back to the 6th century B.C. Later, it was usually covered with a layer of concrete topped with tile. Findings in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia also actually show, or show evidence of, upper story floorings, especially mezzanine floors above shops for storage in the former two cities. Another example is the Ludus Gladiatorus in Pompeii. Roof construction and ceilings, from Etruscan temples on to cavernous spaces like basilicas get extensive coverage. Most interesting is a discussion whether or not the imperial state halls in Domitian’s Domus Augustana were vaulted. Mr. Ulrich comes down on the side advocating flat ceilings. Lavish coffered ceilings covered the atria of the wealthy, or so can be deduced from ancient writings.

More than once, Mr. Ulrich stresses the fact that the Romans tended to overbuild, both in large structures as well as smaller ones in a private context. Thus, catastrophes such as the collapse of the amphitheatre in Fidenae outside Rome in A.D. 27 during gladiatorial games were rare, and the patron, the freedman Atilius, was accused of shoddy work and sent into exile. This overbuilding, according to the author, also means that there are no ancient records of accidental collapse of wooden bridges, although some bridges were built over rivers that would challenge modern engineers.

Interior Woodworking is generally known as opus intestinum: door and window frames, cornice moldings, decorative paneling, balconies, screens, and built-in cabinetry. Mr. Ulrich writes, “Opus intestinum being 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 years of training and a collection of specialized hand-tools such as fine-toothed saws and molding planes,” and that until recently, this distinction was recognized among modern woodworkers. However, the chapter itself deals with portals, doors, and shutters, and their components. Lake Nemi is cited as the single most important site in Italy for the history of Roman-period woodcraft, when the lake was partially drained to extract two large pleasure barges from the time of Caligula and the waterlogged material could be preserved. Unfortunately, most items were destroyed in a 1944 fire.

There follows a brief but compact chapter on Wheels, and then the author moves back to houses, so to speak: Furniture and Veneers. Here, he uses the term of Graeco-Roman furniture. Extant examples go back to Egyptian tombs and he points out that the trade of the furniture maker was a conservative one, and that the technical problems encountered by makers of furniture who used wood were solved by solutions that must have been widespread throughout the ancient world. Skilled woodworkers during the empire, even in Rome, were often Greek or eastern Mediterranean freedmen. The most significant Italian finds, as so often, come from Herculaneum. The various types of chairs get an especially detailed treatment. The chapter ends with a brief discourse on veneers, marquetry, and parquetry.

The last two chapters deal with the trees and timber. In Classification of Trees and Species of Timber Used by Roman Woodworker, the author draws on Cato, Vitruvius, and Pliny, and their “Hellenistic inspiration,” the 4th century B.C. philosopher Theophrastus. In fact, he writes, Pliny provides little more than a Latin translation. Trees were mostly classified by the relative proportion of their woods. Species used by Roman woodworkers are discussed in alphabetical order of their Latin names, including the famed citrus wood with the botanical name of Thuja articulata, Calitris quadrivalvis and Tetraclinis articulata respectively. There is a table of the nomenclature for trees used by the workers, followed by a brief subchapter on drying, preservatives, and conditioners. Finally, The Forests of Italy can be best described in the author’s own words: “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 cross-referenced Glossary of Roman Woodworking Terms, set in small font type, takes up 67 pages. It is described above. There is also an Appendix: Archaeological Evidence of Roman Woodworking Tools, and of course a bibliography.

To sum it up: This is a comprehensive and fascinating work on Roman woodworking, aimed at classicists, historians, and modern woodworkers, but also useful to other people with an enquiring mind and interested in the Ancient Roman world. Fiction writers looking for background sources should take note.

Roger B. Ulrich is Professor of Classics at Dartmouth College.

© 2007 Irene B. Hahn

in association with, click hereRoman Woodworking
by Roger B. Ulrich
Yale University Press 2007
400 pages
205 black & white illustrations
ISBN: 0300103417
List price $85.00/£47.50


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