Another Twist (or Two) in the Holdfast Research

Minerva

 

One of the important parts of my book on Roman workbenches concerns holdfasts. Likely a Roman invention, the origin of the holdfast and its early form remains a bit of a mystery.

Modern sources, such as Roger Ulrich’s “Roman Woodworking,” don’t shed much light on the tool. Instead these sources focus on what the Romans built more than the tools and processes used.

So Suzanne Ellison and I have turned to looking at Roman gravestones and monuments – hundreds and hundreds of them – to find clues about the Roman workbench and its workholding equipment.

We’d both dug up some drawings from this source – which is about 1,700 pages all told. Including one that looked like a holdfast. Probably.

But you have to be a little skeptical when you are looking at an old drawing of an even older monument that had been decaying for 1,500 years.

Then Suzanne found it. A photo (above) of the monument that clearly shows the holdfast with a curled-under proboscis – Suzanne calls it “the curlyfast.” (Shown is An altar to Minerva in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, erected by a ‘College of Fabri’ and dated 31 BC.)

Would this device work on the bench? If I were on an Internet discussion forum, on pain pills and in a particularly crotchety mood, I’d say: No way. And I’d make up some claptrap about the spring action of the curled-under front would resist the tensioning forces exerted by the shaft vis-a-vis. The point is moot. Lorum ipsum dolor.

But the truth is we don’t know. No, Gary, not even you know.

So I sent an email to blacksmith Peter Ross today….

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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35 Responses to Another Twist (or Two) in the Holdfast Research

  1. kendewitt608 says:

    You are making my head hurt. Think I will go back to The Philosophy of Aristotle.

  2. rwyoung says:

    Please tell me the thing between the curlyfast on the left and the pie-server on the right is a Roman woodworker bennie with a propeller on top.

  3. kaisaerpren says:

    Do you think the longer straighter part goes in a hole so that the curly springy part will clamp?

  4. Jeremy says:

    At the risk of sounding like said forum guy, I don’t see how you get it in the hole geometrically. The scroll would be a nice spring action, but it’s not going into a tight hole. The tapered end that is wider than the main body also won’t go in a tight hole. I’m not sure about the square cross section (the carver knew how to make round shafts.)
    To my imaginings, I see it as more like some sort of engraver/ chisel plane, where you use the scroll in your palm and you pare/engrave with the pointy end. Now the axe/adze looking thing might work as a 2 piece holdfast.

    • senrabc says:

      What if the curly fast was permanently mounted in the dog hole. A semi-perminnate vise like thing for the bench top. That way you could take the bench top with you when fleeing the fort and all your curly fasts won’t fall out. Seriously what if they stayed in the hole, you pull it up an inch or 2, put your board in and the give it a whack to lock it in. I bet Mr. Ross will figure out the right geometry.

  5. Look into the work of Dr. John Oleson, there is another fellow, whose name escapes me as well. I will dig into my own store of Roman technology research, as it was the focus of much of my undergrad study. If you are interested in anything I may have, drop me a line, I would be pleased to help out. I need to be prodded, a head injury has left me (very) forgetful about day to day stuff. Classical technology- it’s still buried deep!

    Anyway, let me know.

  6. Look into the work of Dr. John Oleson, there is another fellow, whose name escapes me as well. I will dig into my own store of Roman technology research, as it was the focus of much of my undergrad study. If you are interested in anything I may have, drop me a line, I would be pleased to help out. I need to be prodded, a head injury has left me (very) forgetful about day to day stuff. Classical technology- it’s still buried deep!

    Anyway, let me know.
    Reply

  7. toolnut says:

    If Peter makes one and it proves useless as a holdfast, turn it upside down and it can be used as a panel or lumber carrier.

  8. I wonder if the thing on top is some sort of drilling bit or if it is for mining rock. like a pick? what do you guys think? I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of the people who knew the person who was buried there. What were they trying to tell others by this tombstone about the person who was there? I really wonder if, at the time , they used people in the military to build roads for the kingdom? the only thing i can think of for having helmets, woodworking tools and possible mining/quarrying/rock working tools? Really what do you guys think?

    • saucyindexer says:

      This is a four-sided altar or monument to Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and patron of handicrafts (among other things). She is usually dipicted wearing a helmet and armor. A group of ‘fabri’ or craftsmen dedicated the altar to her and on this one side of the altar included Minerva’s symbols with their tools.

  9. nateharold says:

    I see axes in the lower right… but what else is mixed in there? Little helmets on sticks like a head on a pike? Giant thimbles? Upside down glue pots?

  10. fitz says:

    Perhaps this fellow was the work crew overseer, and that’s his whip?

  11. John Switzer says:

    Looks interesting, I’ll be curious to hear Peters response. It looks very much like an ornamental iron element for a gate or something. Also looks like it might fit into a square hole

  12. I recently read Philippe Petit’s book: “Creativity, the Perfect Crime” and on page 142 and 143 he shows an Egyptian holdfast and illustrates how he uses it to shape legs. I thought you might like to post this in your blog . . . . maybe you already have?!?!?!!? I recommend the book highly.

  13. Before it was curled, perhaps it was inserted into a bench hole from below. Then the top part was curled via heat or mechanically. After hammered down to secure a workpiece (obv), maybe even kicked from the bottom to loosen? It might be much bigger than a modern holdfast.

  14. jkvernier says:

    I showed this image to my wife, the PhD classicist, and she recognized these implements instantly as priestly ceremonial objects. The “propeller beanie” is an Apex, the distinctive headwear of the priestly class known as Flamines. The spiral implement is the Lituus, the scepter or wand also distinctive of Augurs, another class of priests – she says it is portrayed in the hands of sculptured figures in order to easily identify them as Augurs. This image is of the Emperor Augustus dressed as an Augur, holding a Lituus.

    The knife to the right of the Apex on the stele is also a recognizable type used in devotional sacrifices. Both the Lituus and the Apex are objects with deep roots in Etruscan or other pre-Roman Italian cultures, so their forms are fossilized and enigmatic rather than readily comprehensible as functional forms.

    • So that’s good information. Thank you.

      Interestingly, the reason we chased this image as a holdfast is the first English language discussion of the Herculaneum holdfast (“Antiquities of Herculaneum” Thomas Martyn and John Lettice, 1773). The Cambridge authors pointed us to the Guter book (1603) of Roman and Greek inscriptions as another depiction of a Roman holdfast.

      The drawing from Guter:

      https://www.dropbox.com/s/ujj89fnyv35tl75/inscriptiones1.tiff?dl=0

      I’m happy to hear it ain’t a holdfast and we can stick with the one from Herculaneum.

  15. jkvernier says:

    My wife also made another important point. looking back at the evidence in this previous post:
    https://blog.lostartpress.com/2016/02/16/research-on-the-earliest-workbenches/
    She notes that the Image from Jan Gruter’s book is an illustration and description of this very same altar- same inscription, and same objects in a fairly crude woodcut illustration, but the Lituus, Apex and knife are readable as such.
    https://lostartpress.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/page151_inscriptiones.jpg?w=1000&h=

    Thus these are not two separate pieces of evidence, but two versions of the same object, just that one is the 17th-century interpretation.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Yes, you are corrct they are not separate pieces of evidence. Once we found the references in Gruter the next step was to try to find the original Roman source. That led us to sketches of the Alter to Minerva done around 1560 and then to the photos of the original Altar in the Capitoline Museum.

  16. capie001 says:

    Better cancel that email, Chris…

  17. Brian Clites says:

    Might that actually be a strigil?

  18. Alex says:

    Not sure if it would be helpful in your research but maybe you can contact this museum of woodworking in Italy for your research.

    http://www.museodellegno.org/

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