Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Spectacular Find of Late 6th Century Furniture

A couple weeks, ago, whilst reading various topics related to the peoples of Europe at the beginning of the Medieval Period, I stumbled upon a picture of a small table which was found in a grave in Trossingen, a town in south-western Germany, renowned today for the harmonica. I was immediately transfixed by the picture, and began looking for more information about the table and where it came from. I actually found quite a bit about it on the internet, but almost all in German. Since most of the readers of this blog will be English speaking, I thought it would be good to dedicate this post to sharing this information so that the English speaking world can also share in the fascination of these early artifacts.

A fantastically preserved lathe-turned maple table from
a late 6th century grave in Trossingen, Germany.

I am not sure why someone would be out doing archaeological work in the snow, ice, and rain of winter, but according to the official web page of the Archäologische Landesmuseum, Baden-Württemberg (State Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg), related to this archaeological find, that is precisely what was taking place in the winter of 2001/2. What they uncovered seems to be well worth whatever misery the archaeologist might have encountered whilst conducting their dig.

The treasure they were unearthing was a grave of an unknown person of the upper class of the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe in what is now the state of Baden-Württemberg, in south-western Germany. According to the information on the museum's website, and further reading I did on other websites, the occupant of the grave is believed to have been an approximately 40 year old warrior or knight. This conclusion has been drawn from the fact that he was buried with a shield, lance, sword, riding equipment (saddle and tack etc) and held in his left arm, an unbelievably well preserved lyre with figures of warriors facing one another, depicted on the front.

The lyre alone is an unbelievable find, not least-wise because it is seemingly the best preserved of some 15 similar objects found to date; but also because of the complexity of its construction. (more on that later) However, from the standpoint of this blog, it was an incredible find, overall, for the quantity and quality of all the furnishings found in this grave.

Bear in mind that these items have been undisturbed, in a low mound in the earth, for more than 1400 years. To find a single scrap of wood from that time period is remarkable, but to find whole identifiable pieces of furniture is truly amazing. This preservation was made possible because at some point in time, not long after the entombment of the deceased, the site was flooded, leaving a thick airtight layer of fine clay over the grave. (That must have been a miserable year for the residents of the region!)

The contents of the grave included a chair, a bed which had been cut down and converted into a sarcophagus, a table, a candle stick, and various treen ware, (small household objects made of wood). Because the time of this burial was at the very beginning of the Middle Ages, it is useful to study them for what they can tell us about the evolution of furnishings over the course of the next millennium. What I had already noticed from the 5+ years of research I have been involved in, primarily by examining manuscript illuminations, was the very slow changes which occurred with most forms of furniture during the course of much of the Medieval Period. Though this observation had been largely drawn from the study of medieval artwork, the goods from this grave bear witness to the accurateness of many of my conclusions. 

Lathe turned chair
late 6th century

Beginning with the chair; I will explain some of what I mean. I have already published a couple postings regarding the early medieval history of the chair, and you may refresh your memory here, and in other posts on the blog as well. What this 6th century chair shows, is that from the beginning of the Middle Ages through the 17th century, there was very little fundamental difference in the design of this type of turned chair. The artwork from the 7th century through the 12th, when we again find actual surviving objects, 'fill in' the gap in history, now that we have an actual example at the starting point.

Below are two photographs from a book in my library, written by Victor Chinnery, entitled Oak Furniture, the British Tradition. This is an excellent book and I have read it several times. Mr Chinnery is obviously fascinated with post medieval furniture, so does not touch on pre-16th century topics much, but in his book are several examples which show how medieval designs persisted even after the end of the Middle Ages; now we can see that some of those designs were indeed very long lived!

Turned chair from the late 17th century
Fundamentally, this is the same chair
but with the addition of arms, and
subtle changes in turning forms.

There are some easily observable differences in the two chairs pictured above; the most obvious being the inclusion of arms and a higher back. Other differences would be that the 17th century example has a solid seat, whereas the 6th century one had an "unidentified organic substance" (in other words, most probably, leather) which has not survived, and that the joinery in the earlier version goes right the way through the legs, but the later one has a more conventional "socket" mortise. Additionally, the 17th century chair is narrower at the back, and the turnings are more fluid/less static in form.

Notwithstanding those differences, look at the similarities; the finials to the back are near identical, the lower rung on the front has a double inverted arch form, all four legs are connected by horizontal stretchers near their base, and the back is comprised of round horizontal members filled in with reel shaped turnings, as is the back of the 6th century example.

So-called King Stephen's throne from Hereford Cathedral
This chair is missing several parts, but is overall, in
a good state of preservation.

Now consider another chair, also from Mr Chinnery's book, which he takes great pains to argue the fact that this chair "... may be an archaic product of the 16th century." To be fair, he does cite some possibilities of it being older, and admits that stylistically, it is nearly impossible to pin down to an accurate date. In his world of 16th-18th century furniture, when stylistic changes were taking place every decade or so, he has fallen into the pit of attempting to place a precise date on something which has a form spanning much more than a thousand years. What my research has shown is that throughout the medieval period, styles and even more so, forms, changed very slowly, if at all. As a case in demonstrating the conflict of these two ways of seeing the subject of dating an object, take one of Mr Chinnery's arguments for a later date of the chair, in which he cites the turning of a "circa 1680" candlestand as being "exactly" (he supplied the italics) the same as the turning on the back of the chair in question.

Turned candlestand

I do not have enough knowledge of 17th century furniture to try to argue with him about items from that time period, but I would argue the fact that it is not "exactly" like the candlestand, as the latter has no grooves to the bobbins, and the reels are much smaller on the earlier example. What I will point out, however, is that that the "circa 1680" candlestand does have much closer to the exact same form as the central pier of St Mathew's lectern in the Gospels of Saint-Médard de Soissons from the BNF. (Bibliothèque nationale de France) In fact, this 17th century candlestand would be completely at home in the 7th through 13th centuries, based on the forms of turnings on lecterns, chairs, and candle sticks, as depicted in the manuscripts.

St Mathew, from an early 9th century Gospel book
BNF lat 4450 fol 17v

Going back to the topic of chairs, though, it is also worth noting the similarity of the joinery of the Trossingen example and that of the "unknown dated" 12th century one from Mr Chinnery's book. In both cases, the construction utilises "through tenons'. This type of joinery is observed in all the surviving turned chairs of the 12th and 13th centuries that I know of. This 6th century find informs us that such techniques were already in use at the onset of the Middle Ages.

Other objects from this grave find include a bed, which "has been converted into a sarcophagus". When I first saw this picture, I knew it had been cut down, but thought, "oh, great; now someone is going to think that beds in the 6th century were very narrow." I am glad that the archaeological museum pointed out the fact that it had been re-purposed and altered. It does show more of the same forms of turnings as demonstrated in the chair, and again confirms, as does the turned candlestand and table, from the same grave, of the variety of forms utilised in turned objects. This is especially relevant, because we have actual objects with which to compare the designs illustrated in the medieval manuscripts.

6th century bed, converted to a coffin

Unlike the chair, this bed does not have through mortises. It also has very flat well formed timbers for the side panels. The decorative turnings seem to be sliced off of round turned segments, but look to be much less than true half turnings. Perhaps this is partially because of corrosion and shrinkage caused by the drying process during the post exhumation period. Although much is preserved, a lot has also been lost during these items long interment. One internet article that I found, states that originally, the chair had runic inscriptions on the upper back splat, but they are "worn away, or otherwise so altered" as to be "nearly impossible" to decipher.

Along with these photos from the Archäologische Landesmuseum, Baden-Württemberg, came instructions on the website on how to view high resolution images of some of the objects. In these pictures can be seen a lot more of the details and the remains of decoration, such as incise line carving, and fine groove clusters on the turned objects. Because of long exposure to damp and decay, what is left completely unknown, however, is how these pieces might have been further enhanced by paint, wax, or varnish. Unless things had greatly changed between the end of the 6th century and the end of the 8th, though, based on the miniatures, I would assume they would have been painted, as the people of that time seem to have liked colourful objects.

Oak candlestand 

Of all the forms represented in this group of grave-goods, the most remarkable to me, was that of the foot of this candlestand. As already discussed above, the fact that placing precise dates on objects of unknown provenance is sometimes quite challenging. Look at the base of this candlestand; I am sure that, were it not found with the other grave goods from a date-able period, most appraisers would give it a 14th or 15th century date, on account of the foot. Compare it to the foot of this 14th century ewer.

Ewer from the Copenhagen Museum 1st quarter,14th century

There are many other revelations from this grave find, and many questions which the finds raise. Some of the additional details worth mentioning are the fact that of the collection of more than 11 wooden objects found in this grave, only one was made of oak. (The timbers which formed the roof of the grave were also of oak.) That object was the candlestand. The chair is made of maple and ash, the bed is made of beech, and the table of maple. Other wooden objects include a spear with a shaft of hazel, a shield of alder, a bowl made from poplar and a turned and carved canteen of maple "burl wood". In fact, if the goods in this grave are anything to go on, maple, not the generally accepted oak, was the preferred medieval timber for furniture at this time.

The canteen would fall high on the list of questions which this find begs an answer for. It is made of a large chunk of wood, turned round on the face, but leaving some area from which to carve the handles and spout. In the rear, a separate plate has been fashioned to allow the centre of the object to be hollowed out. What fascinates me, is the question of what method the maker would have used to attach that plate in a 'beer-tight' manner. (it apparently held barley beer) To be watertight is a good achievement, but beer would pose an additional problem of pressure from a fermented drink, and therefore, whatever means was used to adhere the plate would have needed to be even stronger than would be required for water alone.

Turned and carved canteen
The process of drying out items left damp for more than 1400 years has
caused a lot of distortion to the original shape of these objects.
Notice how out of flat and round this opening now is, though it would
have been originally quite properly round due to the fact that it was
turned on a lathe.

Based on the fact that the internet is chock-a-block with pictures of people making all sorts of reconstructions of it, for the average person, the most remarkable object from this find is the lyre. This, too, presents some serious challenges to our contemporary notions of early medieval craftsmanship. There is a good article about this object on Wikipedia but it is in German, so English speakers beware. According to this information, and from the observation of additional photos not provided by the museum, the body of this lyre is made of a solid piece of maple between 11 and 20 mm thick and hollowed out to form the sound box. (it tapers toward the yoke) It is then covered over with a second plate of wood which forms the 'top' or cover, and ranges from a thickness of 1 to 6 mm. This is coming from the time when most people assume everything was carved out of a log with an axe. It must have been one fine axe wielding artist who was able to craft this instrument. Additionally, the top was originally only affixed with glue, but a later repair was made in which 5 tiny nails were used on the right lower edge. This too sounds exactly like the generally held view of life in 'the dark ages'.

In all, the finds from this grave site should give reason for most people to seriously question their notions of life, even in the earliest part, of the Middle Ages. This was a group of people outside the primarily romanised Gaul, Spain, and Italy or the sphere of the Eastern Roman Empire, yet these people had the ability to turn a 550 mm table-top on a lathe, cut comb teeth from a deer's antler, with a saw,  and make a wooden canteen with a water-tight glued on side. As I have said before, people have always had skills, and craftsmen have been producing fine objects in every century of human existence.

End view of the lyre showing the separate top. The bridge is made of willow.
What is not very clear from this view, is the incised decoration of the top,
which included "Celtic" knot-work and two groups of 6 warriors facing
each other.The thickness of this entire instrument is thinner than a modern
violin. In the background, a man is holding a modern replica.
Wikipedia photo
Note; all pictures from the museum are used with permission of Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg, and were taken by Manuela Schreiner, unless otherwise specified.

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