2 Roman Workbenches at Saalburg Museum

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While I’ve known about the surviving Roman workbenches at Saalburg Museum since reading W.L. Goodman’s classic “The History of Woodworking Tools” (1964) many years ago, I never thought I’d get to examine the benches in detail.

On Thursday, archaeologist Rüdiger Schwarz unlocked the warren of climate-controlled chambers under one of the buildings of the reconstructed Roman fort and led me, Görge Jonuschat and Bengt Nilsson past thousands of Roman artifacts organized on shelves, in drawers and in boxes.

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And then there they were. Black from their time buried in well No. 49 outside the walls of the fort. Distorted from their return to the atmosphere after they were excavated in 1901. But solid oak workbenches, nonetheless. (We should all look so good after 1,839 years, give or take.)

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Rüdiger, a trained furniture maker, graciously allowed us as much time as we needed to examine the benches, take photographs and write down measurements. For me, what was most shocking is how completely familiar the low benches seemed, especially now that I have a low bench in my shop. The legs were exactly where I would put them. The mortise for the planing stop – ditto. And the width (varying from 11” to 12”) was just right for me to straddle.

Both of the benches had split across the middle of their lengths – perhaps from their time in the well or when they were put down the well. One bench has been repaired since recovery; the other left as-is. The legs on both of the benches were added sometime after they were recovered from the well.

There is a lot that we don’t know about the benches. Why were they put in the well in the first place? There are a few theories – perhaps to protect them during an attack. Perhaps to hide them so they were not cut up and used to build defenses during the decline and eventual abandonment of the fort about 260.

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Looking for tool marks on the surface of the bench.

What were the odd notches on one edge of one of the benches used for – if anything? What did the planing stop look like? Exactly how long were the legs?

These questions (and more) are going to be addressed in detail in my forthcoming book on Roman workbenches. I took enough measurements that I’ll be able to build a fairly close reproduction – copying the leg placement, plus the overall size and shape of the top.

I doubt that a reproduction will give us a lot of definite answers. But it should confirm again that this style of bench is part of a long and still-living woodworking tradition.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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6 Responses to 2 Roman Workbenches at Saalburg Museum

  1. Dina says:

    Very interesting post with beautiful photos of the precious benches.

  2. charleseflynn says:

    Pages 8 – 15 of book described below show the Roman woodworking tools used to make the wooden tablets that were used with wax to create a writing surface. There is even a line drawing of a bench that may look familiar.

    Author Tomlin, Roger, 1943- author
    Title Roman London’s first voices : writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations, 2010-14 / Roger S. O. Tomlin
    Published London : MOLA, [2016]
    ©2016
    Descript’n xv, 309 pages ; 31 cm
    text

  3. Erik Pearson says:

    Any chance you and Rüdiger are related?

  4. nrhiller says:

    This is indescribably cool. I am thrilled for you (as well as the rest of us)!

  5. Simon Stucki says:

    very cool! I was kind of ignoring these roman workbenches you have been telling us about from the practical perspective (I just thought they were interesting historically) but for the last two months I have been thinking about building my own workbench with handtools but since I don’t have my own workbench I was wondering how I was going to build a nice french workbench on the floor… but a few days ago I realized that the solution was right in front of me, just start with a low roman workbench and see where things go from there.

    “The legs on both of the benches were added sometime after they were recovered from the well.”
    so are the legs original and have been found in the well as well but have fallen off (or were the benches taken apart?) sometime in the last 2000 years? Or are these legs reproductions?

  6. Wonderful photos of ancient artifacts.
    I just discovered your quest for the roman workbench and its uses.

    I was surprised by the amazing similarity to some workbenches that I have seen
    here in Mexico.

    I guess that the Roman influence was carried all the way to the Iberian Peninsula and
    then carried by the Spaniards to America (the continent) for woodworking on their
    galleons, palaces and cathedrals and churches.

    Where can I send you some photos showing the workbenches brought to the “new’
    world and some current uses of the said benches in “modern” woodworking.

    You don’t have to travel that far to find some modern roman workbenches…

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