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date: 14 April 2021


  • Nicholas Purcell


The table, chair, and couch are the central canon of ancient furnishings. Their principal characteristic (by contrast with early modern and modern furnishings) is portability, essential in the circumstances of ancient domestic life, with use of space, and even choice of house, at least among the élite, varying with season and occasion. Heavy desks and armoires, immovable dressers and cabinets had no place in a theory of habitation which revolved round the current location of the principal persons of the family; their environment had to be speedily arranged for them, if not around them, with screens, curtains, and equipment for the current activity, be it eating, drinking, sleeping, writing—and portable furniture to support small utensils, *lamps, containers. Furniture was also a form of capital accumulation (as its place in inventories from the Mycenaean period already shows), deriving value from rare materials, ebony in Greek usage, citrus (Gk. thyon, Callitris quadrivalvis, a North African tree) in Roman, see timber; or workmanship (lathe-turning is known in Assyria; fine figured representations, as on the chest of *Cypselus, were common, and best known to us from the wooden sarcophagi of the Crimea).

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