An Interesting Early Saw

Zeugma Pasiphae Daedalus Mosaic Full

The first metallic saws were likely Egyptian, and they resembled a butter knife or a simplified Japanese pull saw. We know that saw technology migrated north to the Romans and Greeks. But most of the saws you see in early frescoes or mosaics are bowsaws – not the Egyptian style.

So I was delighted to see this Roman image that was turned up by contributing editor Suzanne Ellison. It depicts Daedalus and son presenting an artificial cow to Queen Pasiphae. The Roman mosaic is from Zeugma in Turkey. Most of the Zeugma mosaics were done in the 2nd century. The mosaic has the queen, her nurse Trophos, Daedalus and Icarus.

My eyes were drawn immediately to the saw. It looks like an Egyptian saw, but perhaps in iron instead of copper or bronze. It has a wooden handle at one end (in the worker’s hand) and – surprisingly – what looks like another handle at the other end. This second handle looks to be open, much like the open rectangular handles on Roman planes.

If I squint, it looks like the teeth of the saw are filed toward the handle in the workman’s hand. But if I squint again it looks like they go the other way. Or both ways.

Curses. I need to get on a plane to Turkey today to investigate. The resolution on this image isn’t satisfactory.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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25 Responses to An Interesting Early Saw

  1. mazilis says:

    If I squint extra extra hard I can just make out the etching on the saw plate. In hieroglyphics it reads “H. Disston – Cairo”.


  2. Check out Roman Woodworking by Roger B. Ulrich (Yale University Press, 2007). On page 46 he writes that saws generally cut on the pull stroke, though it’s unclear if he means Roman saws or saws in general (which obviously isn’t true now). He also brings up the caveat that artists’ renderings don’t necessarily get the details right. The book is partly available here:

  3. Jeff Faulk says:

    Speculatively: Perhaps it’s actually a frame-saw blade and he’s holding the parts of the frame, having just disassembled it? Because I can think of several ways you could use a blade with open loops on the end (two-man operation? back and forth between the hands? etc) and a frame saw makes sense.

  4. It looks like a double pull saw. There are two handles.

  5. Dave Fisher says:

    Saw, Schmaw. Check out the adze that Icarus is using!

  6. I found a close up of the saw online. I hope it helps. Love the website (and the books).

    • David says:

      I’m a bit late to the party here but after looking at Phillip’s link a few dozen times, from across the room, nose on my screen, ect.. I can’t help thinking that saw has teeth facing in both directions. I’m getting old I know but still, checking that image every way possible, including well into my cupps, I still see bi-directional teeth, please say I’m not the only one…

      • David…I’m late too, but I also see a “bidirectional” tooth pattern. I think I can also see how the may employ such, or it is an illusion of a “combination” tooth pattern like we find in Japanese 鋸 (nokogiri-saw) that can rip and cross cut both effectively…It’s hard to tell?

  7. Chris, not to challenge your historical accuracy, but “Artificial Cows” are more of a 20th century product. Sacrificial cows on the other hand abounded back in the day . . .

    • proclus153 says:

      “Artificial” is definitely what he meant. That chapter of the Daedalus myth is pretty sordid, so I won’t recount it in the comments to a family blog, but just note that it relates to how the minotaur was created.

  8. proclus153 says:

    Given that the handles appear to be more or less symmetrical, and the whole thing is rather short to be used by two people (not to mention that the handles look like they’d be awkward to hold in such a way that the saw would point away from you) I can only assume that the saw was intended to be held from the side between both hands and drawn back and forth. If that’s the case it would be, as another commenter suggested, a sort of predecessor to a frame saw, with the arms of the user forming the tensioning frame. The ergonomics of that process seem bizarre to me as someone used to sighting down a kerf, but it’s the only way I can imagine using a tool that looks like that. You’d need triceps like a sonofagun, though.

  9. miniaturepanjandrum says:

    Most of Zeugma has been underwater since the Birecik Dam was completed around 2000. I remember a NOVA program in 2002 called Lost Roman Treasure, showing archaeologists frantically searching for paintings, mosaics, and other details at the site. This scene was part of a large mosaic featured in the program as they uncovered and then carefully removed it. Now on display in the museum on high ground, I believe. (Ultimately the rising waters stopped shy of the upper city, so excavations continue there.)

  10. Could be that the guy in the background is shaping a board to fit through one of the handles, and the guy with the saw is holding one that has already been fit. Saw looks a little short for that type of two-man work, though. Maybe it is not to scale. Looks like a double-bitted axe, too, there in the corner, as well as a wooden-stocked plane like you could pick up in a hardware store today.

  11. miathet says:

    I would have to think a saw made of the type of iron available to the Romans it might take 2 people to keep it on the cutting line due to the lack of sharpness. In addition I can’t this would have a really high polish so wax and possibly a lubricant would have to be applied to get through the wood reasonably cleanly.

  12. Hi; that axe is even more interesting to me… the invention of the 2 sided axe is largely attributed to North american in the 19th century, a Bronze age axe of 2 sides allegedly found in Persia has largely been called a fraud because of it’s metallurgy, a 2 bladed axe was given to Odysseus but most illustrations of it show 2 blades facing the same direction one above the other. Most illustrations that people have claimed were 2 sided axes were stone cutting tools. but here we have woodworkers and what looks like a 2 sided felling ax similar to modern ones. so Is the mosaic real? or another modern fraud?
    thank for your Blog

    • If only I had the time to perpetrate frauds like this.

    • Jeff Faulk says:


      Look up sometime the Minoan ‘labrys’. To wit, the double bladed axe existed as long ago as Crete in the Bronze Age, and was a functional tool at the time. Given the image of Daedalus and the story that he created the notorious Labyrinth (see the relationship between the two?), it’s no surprise that a double-bladed axe might be featured.

      • This is exactly the double-bit axe I was thinking about, though I actually think we don’t know for sure it was functional and not just ceremonial. The Yoruba priestesses and the Shango also used double-bit ceremonial axes for sacrifices. They are both from around the Nigeria area of Africa.

    • I was under the impression that there are paintings of double-bit axes, but not actually architectural evidence that they existed. Artists draw all sorts of things that don’t actually exist.

      • Jeff Faulk says:

        Check the Wikipedia article of ‘labrys’. Plenty of archaeological evidence, notably in the Crete area, but they were apparently visible enough in the Mediterranean. They may have been more of a ceremonial tool than a working one, but doesn’t mean that people would have been totally unfamiliar with them, especially the association with Daedalus.

      • saucyindexer says:

        The ancient city of Zeugma was in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and there are double-headed axes from Anatolia going back two millennia. The mosaic designers and artists most likely used tools in use in the local area as their reference. About 300 years earlier fresco artist in Pompeii painted a similar scene from the same myth and depicted Icarus sitting at a low Roman workbench.

  13. shopsweeper says:

    I’m thinking about the sand they are standing on(is that a chisel in the sand blade down? are those 2 different colors of tan?). What if the Wood Yard WAS a tool? With different grades of sand in different areas (course, med, fine). It beats paying for a few mil. of sand glued to a paper they way we “modern” woodworkers do.

    What if these tools were designed to work with that sand medium in ways similar to how Festool works with flowing electrons today? Dull saws who’s teeth facilitated the movement and distribution of sand into and out of the kerf – cutting and carrying away saw dust both. Sharp (fresh) sand in, dull sand and chips out. Those ancients were clever people. “Systems” were discovered and exploited long before we had the nomenclature and pictorial arts to describe them – not to mention the inherent motivation to keep trade secrets – the really good ones more so.

    Seems crazy but when I shovel a lot in sandstone (the stone that lies under my yard) I don’t have to sharpen my shovels the way I did in other soils – they get shiny and sharp from digging alone. Sharp enough to sever 2.5″ roots with a slice and step alone.

  14. Brass contributes to the rigidity that is needed in back saws, which require less force to operate than other kinds of saws because of the pulling motion involved.

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