Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Progress in Furniture from Ancient Egypt

Yesterday, we went to the Tutankhamun exhibition in San Francisco (which is very well worth seeing if you can get there - there are exhibits happening in Toronto, New York, and Denver also).   If you don't happen to be aware, the Wiki says:
Tutankhamun (alternately spelled with Tutenkh-, -amen, -amon),  1341 BC – 1323 BC, was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty (ruled 1333 BC – 1324 BC in the conventional chronology), during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. His original name, Tutankhaten, means "Living Image of Aten", while Tutankhamun means "Living Image of Amun." In hieroglyphs the name Tutankhamun was typically written Amen-tut-ankh, because of a scribal custom that placed a divine name at the beginning of a phrase to show appropriate reverence. He is possibly also the Nibhurrereya of the Amarna letters. He was likely the 18th dynasty king 'Rathotis' who, according to Manetho, an ancient historian, had reigned for nine years — a figure which conforms with Flavius Josephus's version of Manetho's Epitome.
The 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun's intact tomb received worldwide press coverage. It sparked a renewed public interest in ancient Egypt, for which Tutankhamun's burial mask remains the popular symbol. Exhibits of artifacts from his tomb have toured the world.
I was most blown away by the furniture.  The above is an absolutely gorgeous traveling chest that belonged to Tutankhamun.  The next picture shows a child's chair.

These pictures come from the official exhibition book, which is also gorgeous, and at $23 online could be a cheaper  and lower-carbon substitute for traveling to the exhibition.

Besides the sheer thrill of being able to stare up close at something several millenia old, and still in fantastic condition, the thing that most struck me was how sophisticated the construction was.  It so happens that I was an avid woodworker in my youth, so I know quite a bit about how furniture is made, both by hand and machine, and I also knew the basics of the history of furniture in Europe.

What struck me immediately was that the ancient Egyptian furniture was at a level of sophistication that Europe didn't reach again until quite late - after the Renaissance.  So last night, I dragged the history of furniture books out from the basement, where they were cowering, unread for a decade or so, and confirmed this impression.  Sure enough, contrast Tutankhamun's traveling chest up above with how medieval chests were constructed:

This comes from The Story of English Furniture, Bernard Price, p15.

The primitive heaviness of the construction here is, I'm hoping, evident to the untrained eye, when contrasted to the Egyptian example above.  This chest is not just an aberration, this was pretty much where Europe was at in the 1200s.  Here's another example from Switzerland.

This comes from World Furniture, edited by Noel Riley, p 20.  In particular note how these medieval chests are constructed, with big wide planks of wood nailed to each other.  There's a problem with this technique - when humidity changes with the season, wood expands and contracts more across the grain than it does along the grain.  So if you nail a wide plank in the cross-grain direction to another plank in the long direction, then the two are going to move to differential extents.  Over time, this is going to tend to cause splits in the wood around the nails.

The solution to this is to use what's known as frame and panel construction, which you often see, for example, in kitchen cabinet doors these days.  In this technique, relatively narrow members around the edge of a square are joined together, and the only wide piece is the panel that floats in the middle in grooves in the narrow pieces.  The narrow pieces aren't wide enough to cause problems with seasonal movements, and the wide panel in the middle is not firmly attached enough to cause a problem as it expands and contracts.

I was taught in school that this wasn't invented until the 1300s in Western Europe, and I am backed up by The Story of Western Furniture, by Phyllis Oates who was a senior lecturer in Furniture and Architectural Design at Kingston Polytechnic in the U.K.  She writes (p45)
The invention of the saw mill in Germany in 1320 contributed to the changes found in later medieval furniture. The hydraulic saw made it possible to saw boards, instead of splitting logs with an axe and adze. Craftsman were now able to create lighter, more easily decorated furniture for which there was a growing demand. A technique, new to Western Europe, was evolved in which thick hewn boards of great weight were replaced by rectangular frames made up of uprights and cross-rails, secured by mortise and tenon joins, into which thin panels were inserted.
However, it's quite evident that Tutankhamun's craftsmen were well aware of this issue, and had the necessary tools to somehow create this style of furniture.  The chest I pictured at the beginning of this piece is unmistakably a frame and panel construction, delicately and precisely executed with light members.  It's clear that it's built with hand-tools, not machines, but other than that it's extremely well made (and indeed surprisingly twentieth century in its aesthetic of contrasting woods and relatively understated decoration).

The creation of this kind of furniture implies a complex ecosystem of craftspeople, as well as extensive trade networks to obtain materials.  There must have been saws, chisels, planes, hand routers, and craftsmen who made them - from bronze!, which implies bronze smelters, and miners and smiths.  In addition to joiners, there were carvers, inlayers, people who traded ivory, goldsmiths, goldminers, gilders, loggers, wood traders, etc, etc.  Medieval Europe could not produce furniture like this, because its economy did not have enough specialization and technical knowledge of furniture making.

In school, I was taught that the "iron age" was more advanced than the "bronze age", but it seems clear that bronze age Egypt was in important ways more sophisticated than iron age medieval Europe.

European furniture gradually advanced through the centuries, and by the late Renaissance, we are starting to reach Egyptian levels of sophistication.  This next picture shows a table and stool set, as well as a frame and panel construction bureau in the background.  The oak table is inlaid with sycamore, bog oak, and other woods.

I still think this is square, heavy, and uncomfortable-looking relative to what Tutankhamun had, but at the technical level, we are getting close.  This furniture set was used in a hunting lodge by James I of England, after whom Jamestown, the first successful English colony in North America, was named in 1607.  I am not convinced that Tutankhamun would have traded him for his furniture.

I think we have to wait till around the late seventeenth century, in the Baroque era, before Europe is clearly ahead.  This French writing table from then is clearly superior in complexity and precision to anything I saw in the Tutankhamun exhibition.

The aesthetics are not to my taste, but the craftsmanship is unquestionably superior.

So now my curiosity is piqued.  If European furniture didn't surpass Ancient Egyptian furniture until after the Renaissance, I have to wonder - did the Sumerian elite have furniture this good?  What about the Incan and Mayan elite?  I do believe that Roman furniture was about on a level with what the Egyptians had.  Is this just what all agricultural civilizations do at their height, more or less?


porsena said...

Another thought-provoking post about progress!

Perhaps the best surviving example of the Sumerian's ability to work with wood and inlays is the Royal/Battle Standard of Ur in the British Museum, dating from about 2600-2400 BC. (Click on the panel images to see the detail.) Even back then it was of panel and frame construction. It's an amazing piece, especially considering its age.

We have to remember that furniture was only for society's elite until quite recently. The farmers and slaves who supported them had nothing similar until roughly the industrial revolution.

Stuart Staniford said...


Interesting link! I can't determine the construction technique from the picture, and the text doesn't say. However, clearly there's some nice inlay work, at a minimum.

Datamunger said...

Tangential but....

A book that has influenced somewhat is Bruce Trigger's Understanding Early Civilizations: A comparative study. He's both alert to the many meta issues involved in such study (and anthropology & archeology in general) and very detailed and evidence driven. I confess to have only read the first and last parts while skimming and reading selectively in the middle where the painstaking comparisons are made.

This link gives some flavour.

Stuart Staniford said...

DM - that looks great, and I ordered it.