Learning about Furniture: History v. Archeology Part III
In my pursuit to learn about period furniture and furniture making, I employ a controversial approach called experimental archeology. Experimental Archeology involves the recreation of past events and relies on the assumption that if the conditions are correctly recreated, results of the experiment will be similar to past events.
In my woodworking, I typically attempt to set the back half of the equation equal, i.e., to reproduce a specific piece of furniture. On the input side of the equation are the tools and techniques I use. Typically, I’m trying to solve for the technique factor in the equation because this information is missing or ambiguous in the historical record and only implied in the archeology.
The reason Experimental Archeology is so controversial is that it is nearly impossible to accurately recreate the conditions, let alone the “soft” factors such as the values of the craftsmen, his understanding of the desires of his customer, etc. I’ve gotten as far as recreating the equipment used to sharpen tools (and gotten mixed results), and worked without electric light thinking such things would influence my results. Wearing period clothing (especially shoes) has influenced my sense of period technique as well.
My feeling is that a thorough understanding of period furniture isn’t possible without having had some hands-on experience. Separating features that were expedient from those that were intentional and labor intensive, help us understand the intentions of the builder, what he felt was important to his customer, and perhaps what may have been important (or unimportant) to the buying public. In my mind, understanding basic workshop practices enhances connoisseurship.
The double curve of the cockbeading on this piece is fairly difficult to produce. Much simpler would be a simple arch (or no cockbeading). So having done it (this is my copy of an original), I interpret this feature as something the builder (John Head) felt was worth the trouble. And I think I can see his point. I think it IS a little nicer than a single smooth arch would be.
Like history or archeology, experimental archeology has its place. But I wouldn’t bet that my findings are accurate. I’ve allowed my experiments (and some of yours) to guide me, lacking documented direction. And I’ve greatly enjoyed this aspect of my work. I’m also happy to recommend this approach to you. Only, I’d add the cautionary note not to be too convinced by your own results.
I believe that the tools and techniques I use influence the way my furniture looks. I’m not sure everyone agrees. But if you follow my logic, I would also say that our understanding of period furniture, being the product of our study of it, is influenced by the tools and techniques we used to learn about it. And that’s really what these 3 blogs have been about.