Prehistoric furniture – the chair has been around for thousands of years

Inside a house at Skara Brae. By John Allan, CC BY-SA 2.0

The term furniture refers to objects designed to support activities such as sitting, eating, or sleeping. People have likely used natural materials as furniture since time immemorial: tree stumps and rocks for making simple stools, chairs, tables or beds.

Although many cultural items from ancient times like pottery and jewelry have survived over the years, furniture, which is often made of wood, is generally poorly preserved.

The stool is believed to be one of the earliest types of seat ever invented. The chair has also been around for thousands of years but was more of a symbolic article for authority rather than an item for common household use.

Neolithic Chair model from ca. 4750-4700BC. Discovered in Târpești in modern day Romania, and exhibited in Piatra Neamt Museum. By CristianChirita – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Examples of early prehistoric furniture are scarce and knowledge about their form and function is often reconstructed from artwork found in archeological sites. The earliest evidence of constructed furniture is a seated Venus figurine found at the Gagarino site in Russia.

A similar figurine named Goddess on a Throne was found in Catal Huyuk in Turkey, believed to date from around 6000 BC. Another Neolithic sculpture is The Thinker of Cernavoda, a terracotta sculpture of a male figure sitting on a stool created during the Hamangia culture around 5000 BC.

Thinker of Cernavoda, Constanta Museum. By Cristian Chirita – Own work, GFDL

A valuable contribution to our knowledge of prehistoric furniture is the excavation site of Akrotiri, a Minoan bronze age settlement on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera). The village was buried in a volcanic eruption in about 1627 BC and was exceptionally well preserved.

It is the source of some particularly fine examples of furniture from this period, as the volcanic ash that buried the city buried the homes and provided negatives of destroyed wooden objects. Using these negatives, casts of partial or entire pieces of furniture can be produced.

A cast of a wooden table made from a volcanic ash mold.

A wide range of unique stone furniture from the Neolithic period was discovered in Skara Brae, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the principal island of the Orkney archipelago, Scotland. The village dates from 3100-2500 BC and due to a shortage of wood in the region, the inhabitants of Skara Brae used stone, a material that was more readily available in the local area.

Inside a house at Skara Brae. By John Allan, CC BY-SA 2.0

The dwellings contain stone-built pieces of furniture including cupboards, seats, dressers, and storage boxes. Seven of the houses found at the site have similar furniture and the beds and the dressers have the same location in all the houses. Of all the fixtures in the house, the dresser appears to have been the most important. It stood against the wall opposite the entrance and was the first thing seen when entering the house.