Bronze Age Espionage: Did Ancient Germans Steal the Pharaoh's Chair Design?

PHOTO: Folding chair of the abbess of the Nonnberg monastery from the 12th century.

Roughly 3,500 years ago, folding chairs remarkably similar to ones found in Egypt suddenly became must-have items in parts of northern Europe. Scholars are now looking into this potential case of ancient industrial espionage.

When Tutankhamen died, his tomb was filled with all manner of precious objects, including two folding chairs. The more attractive one is made of ebony and has ivory inlays.

Such ingenious chairs were already being used in Egypt more than 4,000 years ago. The brilliantly simple design consists of two movable wooden frames connected to each other with pins and with an animal hide stretched between -- a kind of ur-camping stool.

It isn't surprising, given the advanced nature of their society, that the Egyptians were familiar with such comfortable seating. Astonishing, however, is that the gruff chieftains of northern Europe also sat on such chairs.

Some 20 Nordic folding stools have been discovered so far, most of them north of the Elbe River in Germany. The majority were found by mustachioed members of the educated classes, who burrowed into their native soils in the 19th century in search of "national antiquities." The wood had usually rotted away, leaving only the golden or bronze clasps, rivets and knobs.

The only complete specimen was found in 1891 in Guldhøj (Golden Hill) near Kolding on the Jutland peninsula, which forms modern-day mainland Denmark. The chair, made of ash wood and with an otter-skin seat, was found lying in a tree-trunk coffin. Dendrochronologists have dated the specimen, made by a local carpenter, to 1389 B.C.

But folding chairs clearly originated in the Orient. The oldest depiction of one is found on roughly 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian seals. Egyptians were also familiar with folding chairs at any early date. Dignitaries used them as mobile thrones, and the long stretchers at their bases prevented the chairs from sinking into the sand. Bronze Age Trading Networks

The fact that the design reached so far north led many scholars to posit that northern Europeans developed it independently and in parallel to the Egyptians. But that view has now been challenged. "The design and dimensions of the chairs are too similar," says Bettina Pfaff, an archaeologist from Nebra, near the eastern German city of Halle, who specializes in prehistory. Her colleague Barbara Grodde also finds that there is "a remarkable similarity" between the Egyptian and Nordic models.

In other words, Pfaff says, "they were copied." This, in turn, presupposes that there was contact between sunny Egypt and the swampy North some 3,400 years ago.

Other evidence for such contact has also turned up. In recent years, archaeologists have discovered how far-reaching the trade network had already become in the Bronze Age. Blacksmiths from Germany's Harz Mountains worked with gold from Cornwall, while others imitated Mycenaean swords or looped needles from Cyprus.

"The elites throughout Europe were in communication at the time," says Bernd Zich, an archaeologist from Halle, adding that luxury goods were exchanged across great distances "usually on foot." A Sudden Fashion Craze in the North

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