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date: 23 January 2019

Summary and Keywords

The skilled work of the Roman carpenter (lignarius or tignarius faber) was essential to the construction of domestic and public buildings, creation of machines and structures for military purposes, and overcoming natural features. Composed in the 1st century bce, Vitruvius’s ten-book illustrated commentary on Roman architecture and architectural techniques, De architectura, comprises the primary textual evidence for the architectural techniques employed by Roman carpenters and engineers. In his various books, Vitruvius discusses the characteristics of different types of wood (supplemented by descriptions in Pliny’s Natural History); machines used on work sites, such as hoists and hydraulic machines; and covering frameworks for houses and the larger spans of basilicas and other massive public structures. For the latter, Roman carpenters devised the triangulated truss, a complex construction corroborated by surviving visual evidence.

Archaeological evidence fills many gaps in Vitruvius’s coverage of practical carpentry methods and provides the only extant evidence for woodcutting and finishing implements, such as felling axes and handsaws. Houses at Pompeii and Herculaneum preserve traces of key carpentry techniques: timber framing, stairways, and load-bearing ceiling frameworks. The carpenter’s expertise also extended to shipbuilding and construction of strategic wooden bridges, most notably those erected during military campaigns under Caesar and later Trajan.

Keywords: Roman carpentry, carpenter, lignarius, Vitruvius, De architectura, machines, framing, vaults, bridges, construction techniques

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