How Ancient Woodworkers Sculpted Civilization
Humans have a remarkable relationship with trees. Trees not only provide the oxygen we need to breathe, but also wood in its rawest form. For millennia, woodworking by carpenters, turners, and joiners have transformed this basic material into objects that have made a huge contribution to the advancement of civilization.
Right up to the present moment wood is still being worked into buildings, furniture, and ornamentation. It’s more than likely you’re sitting on, working on, or sleeping on a wooden structure, despite the emergence of plastics, steel, and concrete alternatives.
Our amazing relationship with wood began with the Neanderthals and it’s never ceased. The origin of woodwork and its development throughout history is a fascinating subject. Woodworkers have enabled overseas travel, created communities, improved personal safety, and built everything we needed to live and flourish.
Why Was Woodworking So Important Throughout History?
When early man first stood on two legs, they fashioned weapons such as the simple wooden spear in order to fight enemies and kill predators or prey. But ancient man didn’t stop with pointy sticks.
They developed wooden tools that were fit to clear land and harvest crops to create guaranteed meals. As these farmers evolved and thought about stretching their horizons, wood was turned into boats that could cross vast oceans.
Woodworkers developed tools for their woodworking; to clear land and build boats. Here an old artisan sawmill is shown. (cineuno / Adobe)
Early man, the ancient Europeans, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all perfected their own styles of woodworking throughout the ages and as woodworking skills advanced so did the nations they supported.
Stronger ships, safer homes, and increasingly beautiful trade objects made by woodworkers propelled prosperous economies in stable communities.
It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that without the tool building, home building, and boat building skills of carpenters, we’d still be living in caves and hunting wild animals for food. From cots to coffins and every life stage in between woodworkers held an important place in ancient life.
What’s The Oldest Example Of Woodworking?
Having said that, our oldest pieces of woodworking belonged to European Neanderthal foragers.
Archaeologists investigating a Palaeolithic site in Schöningen, Germany found wooden spears, a lance, and double pointed sticks dating to 300,000 years old.
Schöningen wooden spear used to hunt during the Palaeolithic era, early example of earliest days of woodworking. (AxelHH / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Researchers in Poggetti Vecchi, Italy uncovered boxwood digging sticks alongside animal bones all of which were radiometrically dated to 171,000 years old, and in Aranbaltza, Northern Spain a 15 centimeter (6 inch) 90,000-year-old digging tool fashioned from yew was uncovered. Experts think these early wooden tools were used to hunt and forage for flint, tubers, or clams.
Dating tests show the tools were most likely made with the sharp edge of a stone, the most obvious stone being flint. Some of the tools were even burnt first to make the scraping process easier and to harden the finished product.
Finds like this are very rare because oxygen, dampness, and fungi quickly decompose wood. These wooden artifacts were only preserved because they fell into peat or sedimented lakes where dense organic material prevented their decay.
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Did Ancient Woodworkers Also Create Art?
Yes, they did. Take for example the Shigir idol, a little closer to our time but still an age away. Archaeologists carbon date the 5 meter (16.4 feet) tall carved humanoid figure to 11,000 years old. Surviving in a Siberian peat bog the idol is covered in decorative symbols and designs.
Other artistic examples of woodwork are 5000-year-old intricate veneers from Egypt and in ancient China of roughly the same era, the most beautiful carved and inlaid wooden furniture has been found along the old Silk Road.
Cosmetic box of the Royal Butler Kemeni, 1814 –1805 BC, Egypt, cedar with ebony and ivory veneer, woodworking turned into art. (Pharos / Public Domain)
The Romans enjoyed beautiful wooden objects too. In the remains of Pompeii, archaeologists have found heat preserved houses complete with carbonized decorative furniture such as cots, tables, chairs, chests, beds, and even a throne.
These examples of beautiful ancient woodworking give a clear indication that ancient carpenters not only created the practical necessities of life but beautiful and revered objects too.
Woodworking Is Praised In Ancient Texts
Practical examples of ancient woodwork show us what carpenters made, but it’s the ancient texts that show us how important they were to society.
Take for example the Old Testament of Christianity that tells us Noah built a wooden ark from cypress wood with direct instructions from God to make the dimensions 330 by 50 by 30 cubits. In the New Testament both Joseph and Jesus are carpenters by trade.
Woodworkers building Noah's Ark. (Ras67 / Public Domain)
In the east, the writings of Lu Ban, a Chinese woodworker who lived from 507 to 444 BC, are held in great esteem and he was worshiped as the patron god of builders and contractors. Lu Ban introduced the plane and chalk line to ancient China and was said to be taught by a god.
The Romans also have their love affair with wood preserved in text. Vitruvius ‘De Architectura’ contains a whole chapter on timber and its uses.
There are so many textual and archaeological examples of ancient woodworking it’s clear that our ancestors made the most of their seemingly endless forests and those with the skills to make tools, furniture, art and any number of objects were important members of society.
What Tools Did Ancient Woodworkers Use?
Pre-historic tools pulled from peat bogs and silted lakes indicate that stone, flint, and fire were all used to carve wood into useable shapes. Flint-heads and sharp-edged stones won’t come as a shock, but what about bones?
Before civilizations advanced with metallurgy, bones, and antlers were also used to shape wood.
Archaeologists have tried to recreate ancient conditions using bones from rare breed free-ranging cattle whose bones are much more durable than our factory farmed versions. Their experiments indicate bone was used to chisel wood – a technique requiring a much lighter touch than that offered by a flint axe. As we progressed from pre-history, advanced tools were invented to carry out intricate woodworking techniques.
Examples of Roman chisels. (CC BY 3.0)
The ancient Egyptians used basic axes and chisels alongside bow drills and pull saws. The early use of copper for tool heads evolved into bronze as our understanding of metal deepened. In fact, the Egyptians used so much wood that the Nile Valley suffered severe deforestation and their wood needed to be imported.
Today we use many of the same hand tools as our woodworking ancestors. Since the Middle Ages, disregarding the modern use of steel for cutting edges, hand tools have barely changed. Our chisels, plumb lines, saws, and hammers still resemble images drawn 5,000 years ago.
Today we use many of the same hand tools as our woodworking ancestors. (ermess / Adobe)
The Development of Woodworking Techniques
Scraping wood into a point with bones and flint was a simple building method employed by ancient woodworkers, but joinery is a skill much older than we might think. The first examples of joinery and veneering date back thousands of years.
Joinery is the ability to join separate pieces of wood. There are many different joinery techniques but the classic mortise and tenon that creates a right angle from two separate pieces is one of the strongest and, it seems, one of the oldest.
An example of a mortise and tenon joint was found in a 7,000-year-old wood-lined well in Leipzig, Germany. Preserved twenty feet underground researchers discovered it served a community of 100 timber longhouses from the Neolithic period.
Made from three-foot-thick oak, and covered in tool marks, it overturned perceptions that joinery was too sophisticated for stick scraping Neolithic races.
Ancient Egypt gives us another example of millennia-old joinery. The Khufu ship, for example, found in a pyramid of Giza was held together with mortise and tenon joints, and not to be outdone ancient Chinese carpenters built architecture with mortise and tenon joints alongside brackets, beams, and struts.
Ancient Egypt with its rich historical record has preserved examples of veneering, carving, and the use of animal glue. Examples of these advanced woodworking techniques were found in the burial tomb of Semekhet dating 5000 years old, and the first use of woodworking glue we know of was dated between 1570-1069 BC. Although we don’t know the formula of ancient Egypt’s ‘No More Nails’, its existence is recorded in texts.
Advanced woodwork techniques have also been found along the medieval silk roads connecting Asia with the Middle East and Europe. Ancient furniture held together with joinery and decorated with veneer dates all the way to the 4th century BC and was valuable enough to trade.
Why Carpenters Were So Important To Civilization’s Advancement
Every culture that has left evidence of its existence has recorded woodworkers in pictorial form or writing. Although we tend to picture carpenters as humble manual workers, they have held an important place in society throughout the ages and across the globe.
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Ancient Egyptian woodworking. (Eloquence / Public Domain)
Pre-historic man created essential wooden tools and lined wells with joinery to serve communities. Later woodworkers made homes, ships, weapons, and furniture from one of the few materials available at the time, so it comes as no surprise that carpenters’ guilds were established in the Middle Ages.
These guilds created quality regulations, provided charitable gifts and pensions, and trained apprentices. One such guild was the Carpenter’s Company of London which protected member interests when the Great Fire destroyed London in 1666, and parliament decreed all houses be made of bricks. In 1685-94 the Carpenters Company took on 54 apprentices from all walks of life and kept a standard of work through quality inspections.
The Personal Account Of An 16th Century Carpenter
In 1999 the account book of a 1700’s American pioneer carpenter came to light.
The lucky finding, discovered in the concealed drawer of a Victorian bureau, provided historians with the daily accounts of a skilled woodworker helping to lay the foundations of modern-day America.
The account book records the life of a carpenter called Ezra Bryan. He made chests, tables, chairs, beds, clock cases, window frames, cheese presses, tool handles, and even buttons. A particularly interesting account lists the household furniture purchases of a newly married couple to the value of £10 (about $10 at that time). A few months later a coffin for the couple’s child is added.
In the cold months Ezra employed townsfolk to help cut trees, split planks, and weave rattan seats for chairs. He taught apprentices and paid employees. The carpenter Ezra catered to everyone and made no end of essential objects with his skills. In the summer months when presumably the harvest was king and townsfolk were busy, he made furniture without assistance.
Ezra’s account book is a valuable contribution to personal history. It indicates how woodworkers improved lifestyles and in the case of the newly married couple, Ezra catered to the fortunes and misfortunes of their life path.
Who could live without the skills of a good woodworker throughout history?
Ancient Woodworking In A Modern World
Today, woodworkers are backed with the advances of modern technology. The discovery of electricity, the development of cheap plywood, chipboard, and fiberboard. Power tools and CNC machines allow us to produce numerous wooden artifacts at incredible speed with certain precision.
Our demand for wood and woodworking skills is still high but it’s more expensive than ever before because deforestation has outpaced and outgrown the availability of this once abundant material.
It’s interesting to see that despite the other modern materials available such as plastics and concrete, we haven’t forgotten our wooden roots. Our relationship with wood is so ingrained that we can’t leave it behind.
Woodworkers who practice handmade techniques have a direct link to our ancestors all the way back to the first Neolithics that burned and scraped a pointed stick 300,000 years ago.
The wooden link to our natural world is a part of human evolution. You might even argue that it moved us forward. Woodwork has provided us with not only a way to survive, but a way to advance and improve.
Top image: Ancient carpenter, woodworking. Source: deanjs / Public Domain.
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