Pillar carpentry

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

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Good archaeologists are curious people.

Perhaps this is because much of their research reveals only pieces of information, and the more complete reconstructions they seek rely on uniting many different kinds of data from many different sources.

In this example, renovation of an old house provides an unexpected learning experience.

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A deconstructed house, like this mansion, can be instructive. Several years ago, the front of this house was reconstructed, probably because of general rot due to age and poor maintenance.

During the reconstruction, the two original pillars, which extended for two stories vertically, were laid out on the front lawn.

This exposed the ends of the pillars, and thus how they were constructed.

When standing in position with a good coat of paint, it’s difficult to know how the pillars were made.

These were pieced like the staves of a wooden barrel, with many vertical pieces, in a wedge shape, held together with pegs or metal pieces. Given how much longer the tall pillar sections were compared to a barrel stave, making wooden pillars must have been a tricky undertaking.

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Although these pillars were made mostly of wood, which often preserves poorly in archaeological contexts, the metal fasteners might be found on a house site. Even if identified as a construction material, the archaeologist probably wouldn’t be able to tell whether fasteners were used in pillars or some other part of a building.

So, if you were making decisions about reconstruction of this house, would you have wanted the pillars used in the reconstruction to be made like the original ones, with the fitted pieces of wood? Or, would you have chosen to spend far less money and have pillars made with modern materials (which may be far less susceptible to rot)—but looking exactly like the originals?

Historic preservationists commonly face such decisions…. Which would you choose? Would you prioritize costs or originality?