Saturday, May 21, 2016

A 3500 Year Old Chair

I'm not much of a traveler, but last week my wife and I went to Paris on vacation.  When I have gone places I've found myself marveling at the old architecture.  There's something about 1000 year old structures that strikes awe in me.  How in the heck did they do that with the tools available at the time?  Incredible!

The Louvre is one such place.  It is an approx. 900 year old structure with a lot of history, and has housed great works of art for 100-200 years now (not certain how long).  The point of this blog post is something I saw inside the Louvre.

While going through an area with ancient Egyptian artifacts I spied some old furniture that was made about 1500 B.C. - that's 3500 years ago for those of you who are counting!  What really struck me was how the basic joinery techniques that we use today have not changed.  Take a look at these stools (or backless chairs).  The first has tenons on the legs that are housed in through-mortises in the seat frame.  Look at the carved feet.  The claws are inlaid (sp?) ivory.  All this with bronze tools, most likely.
Note the leg tenons showing through the seat frame
The second stool still has its seat weaving in place (I imagine it's not the original weaving).  On this stool, the legs have through mortises for the tenons of the seat rails.  The mortises for the front and back rails are off-set above the mortises for the side rails.  The tops of the legs are nicely rounded over.
I couldn't tell if the tenons were wedged
Those were interesting, but what I really want to write about is this chair.  I was dumbfounded!
The 3500 year old chair - so much like good sound construction of today!
The construction is incredibly similar to the dining chairs I recently completed.  Lower and upper rails attach to the legs.  Above the seat, the back legs angle back to become the frame for the backrest. Two backrest rails house a single vertical slat - and the backrest rails are curved for comfort!

The next picture shows the joinery detail of the upper seat rails to a front leg.  You can clearly see the through tenons protruding slightly.  It is possible that the one on the right is wedged, but I couldn't tell for sure.  The left one does not look wedged.
Close-up of a front leg upper rail joinery
With the through mortises, the front and side rails look to be off-set a little with the front rail being higher.  It's hard to tell from the picture (I couldn't get close enough to the chair), but to get the rails at even heights it's possible that the front rail tenons were off-set (to effectively lower the rail) so that the rails could be even with each other.

Just below that was where the lower rails joined with the leg.  The tenons are not through tenons. Why would they have done through tenons on upper rails, but not on lower rails?  Especially when these lower rails are off-set too.
Close-up of a front leg lower rail joinery
The back legs were joined to the upper seat rails the same as the front - with through tenons.  But the more interesting thing for me about this picture is the shaping of the back leg into the backrest.
See the through tenon and the transition from lower leg to upper leg / backrest
The following picture gives a good view of the shaping of the upper portion of the back legs.
View of the chair from the opposite side
Here is a closer view of the back leg transition to backrest.  You can see the through tenons from each seat rail.  The backrest rail, though, does not have through tenons.
Back leg joinery detail
That leaves me with the backrest.  It's interesting that the legs are tenoned into the upper backrest rail, rather than the opposite. That's one difference between this chair and my dining chairs.  I see the lower backrest rail coming away from the right leg a little bit.  I can't tell for sure, but it might be a double tenon.
Backrest detail
Finally, and this really impressed me, this view of the backrest from above shows the gentle curvature of the backrest rails.  These people had all the details to make a chair comfortable and durable.  One can only conclude that they'd been making chairs for at least a couple centuries (maybe more?) to arrive at this design.
Note the gentle curve of the backrest rails
The only information available on this chair was in the cards in the display.
Info cards
Using Google Translate gives the following loose translation into English: "Objects from most of the western cemetary Qurnet Murai (opposite Deir el-Medina). Middle of the 18th dynasty (1450 B.C.), age at which we put in the tombs of the furniture that really served."  [Per Wikipedia, Deir el-Medina was "an ancient Egyptian village which was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties of the New Kingdom period (ca. 1550–1080 BC)"]

(Update 25-May-16: a better translation from a kind person in France is "Items mostly from the western cemetery of Qurnet Murai (opposite Deir el-Medinch). Middle of the 18th dynasty (about 1,450 BC), a period when they still placed furniture that had really been used into tombs.")

I'm totally blown away by this chair!  I'd love to see the tools available to the craftsmen 3500 years ago.
Next time I complain about not being able to get perfectly square stock I hope someone kicks me in the ass.  There probably wasn't a truly square piece on this chair.  And if I ever blame my tools again I just have to think about what tools were available 3500 years ago.  How sharp an edge do you think they could get on bronze?  Without diamond plates?  Or good flat reference surfaces?  Or honing paste?  How easy was it to saw with bronze saws?  Or sharpen them without hardened steel saw files?



  1. I feel the same way and have the same thoughts when I look at furniture made in the 1700 to 1800s.
    The chair looks crude by today's standards but I'm not sure I could replicate it with the tools I have now.

    1. Yeah, I'm always in awe with early furniture. I've never been a furniture aficionado (don't know arts and crafts from federal from queen Anne from ...), but I can really appreciate the work that went into these pieces.

  2. This is fantastic to see. It makes me wonder how long my humble attempts will last?
    It is amazing to think that we are creating joinery that has been used for centuries virtually unchanged. I really like that chair...thanks for sharing.

    1. Hey, Greg. I've thought that I'd be thrilled if my furniture lasts 100 years. But this is something else. Now, there is the chance that the chair wasn't really used much. I don't fully understand the translation of the French, but it might mean that the chair was sealed in a grave of some muckity-muck for centuries, safe from the elements. But still, ... 3500 years!

  3. If it was in a tomb of a muckity-muck, it means this was a very special piece, indeed. Think about how fancy it would have to be to be included with things a dead muckety-muck needs to take into the after life. Maybe he was expecting long lines!

    1. Yeah, if the lines for the afterlife are anything like the security lines at CDG airport, I might bring a comfortable chair with me too. LOL

  4. This is fascinating Matt.
    Just thinking about the tenons - I wonder what the glue was, hide presumably. I'm surprised they're not pinned.
    On the difference between through tenons for the seat rails and not-through for the stretchers I wonder if it is the different forces at work. For the seat, the 'woven' part would act to pull everything together, whereas the legs' would tend to splay, so the stretchers were a tighter fit.

    1. That's a good point about the woven seat keeping things together. Hadn't thought about that. Regarding glue, I have no idea what was available then. I'm also surprised (as I think you said elsewhere) that the joints were not pegged.

  5. Always fascinating and humbling to see in person a very old piece of furniture that survived all these years.