“Byzantine” Turned Furniture

Birka Turned Chair1photo by Beth and Bob Matney, Gotland Fornsal 2006

This is definitely not what people think of when they hear of “Early Period” furniture. To most, the expectation is for very simple construction, a minimum of parts, and everything being very square. But then they see “Byzantine” and figure it must be from that really advanced culture with it’s Imperial Capital in Constantinople. This was my thought too, and being interested in the Medieval Roman Empire (Byzantium to those of you schooled by Gibbon) I dug deeper into the style.

It seems there is a bit of confusion, though, as I can’t seem to find a single example that was actually manufactured in or around “Byzantium” during the period that these pieces dated. They certainly are complicated, though. Certainly more complex than similar pieces that were created in Constantinople in the preceding centuries, however there are no extant pieces or graphical references to a piece from the “Byzantine” Empire that matches the style produced in the Germanies and Scandinavia in the 12th and 13th Centuries.

But what if “Byzantine Style” has nothing to do with the post 1776 identification of the Roman Empire during the European Middle Ages, but actually is a description of it’s complicated appearance? The “Byzantine Empire” owes it’s name more to the apparently confusing and arcane legal system that was developed over a score of centuries.

Merriam-Webster to the rescue-

byzantine: (adj) a : of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation <a Byzantine power struggle>

b : intricately involved : labyrinthine <rules of Byzantine complexity>

First Known Use: 1651

Well look at that: “intricately involved.” I’d have to say the stacked and assembled turnings in these pieces certainly meet that criteria.

The next thought is “why?” Why would someone go through all the trouble of splitting the billets, turning, then joining the spindles in such intricate patterns to effectively create panels? It’s even boggling that someone might come up with such a complicated form when economical use of time and materials would instead point to cutting boards to square to make furniture, and it being of an apparently wholly new style. “Turned” joint stools and chairs were fairly common from Republican Rome to the modern day, and for most the Windsor Chair is considered the apex of the form and style. But what of these curiosities? They are so extreme they really seem to defy Occam at every turn. As to rarity, we have a dozen or more extant pieces from what is commonly referred to as the European “Dark Age” which actually makes them more common than cross-frame chairs, panel chairs, and nearly as common as six-board chests for the same period. Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot, over.

While thinking over all this again, I considered the work required to turn the parts for one of these out of sawn-stock, and then thought of what it might require from the firewood stack I’ve been using for most of my small stock the last few months. We had a couple branches come down in the last big snow and that’s provided a fairly appreciable amount of wood to make 1″ square billets. Not enough to make a chair of this type, though.  Then I thought smaller, and came to an idea of experimental archaeology. If I took the smallest branches, those that really have no “useful” wood between the pith and the sapwood, and turned those with the pith as the center, I could certainly get a good volume of spindles for this kind of construction.

That’s where the epiphany occurred. Perhaps all the spindles for the “panels” in the originals was produced from the smaller branches of a felled tree that had no other appreciable use. All the branches that were a couple fingers thick in diameter, turned and mortise and tenoned to make the panel elements that fall in between the larger turned frame elements. The likelihood of having to deal with the pith splitting out is pretty well reduced, especially in such small parts, as the ends are captured in mortises and cross-pinned. Any splitting as the spindles dry would be arrested at the shoulder and reduced in the tenon due to it being held in a mortise. I’m going to have a go at this here shortly and will report on how it goes.

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