Roman Structures > Roman Sawmill
A sawmill or lumber mill is a facility where logs are cut into lumber. Prior to the invention of the sawmill, boards were rived (split) and planed, or more often sawn by two men with a whipsaw, one above and another in a saw pit below. The earliest known mechanical mill is the Hierapolis sawmill, a Roman water-powered stone mill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor dating back to the 3rd century AD. Other water-powered mills followed and by the 11th century they were widespread in Spain and North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, and in the next few centuries, spread across Europe. The circular motion of the wheel was converted to a reciprocating motion at the saw blade. Generally, only the saw was powered, and the logs had to be loaded and moved by hand. An early improvement was the development of a movable carriage, also water powered, to move the log steadily through the saw blade.
The Hierapolis sawmill, a Roman water-powered stone saw mill at Hierapolis, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) dating to the second half of the 3rd century AD is the earliest known sawmill. It is also the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.
Water-powered stone sawmills working with cranks and connecting rods, but without gear train, are archaeologically attested for the 6th century AD at the Eastern Roman cities Gerasa and Ephesus.
The earliest literary reference to a working sawmill comes from a Roman poet, Ausonius who wrote an epic poem about the river Moselle in Germany in the late 4th century AD. At one point in the poem he describes the shrieking sound of a watermill cutting marble. Marble sawmills also seem to be indicated by the Christian saint Gregory of Nyssa from Anatolia around 370/390 AD, demonstrating a diversified use of water-power in many parts of the Roman Empire.
Sawmills became widespread in medieval Europe again, as one was sketched by Villard de Honnecourt in c. 1250. They are claimed to have been introduced to Madeira following its discovery in c. 1420 and spread widely in Europe in the 16th century.
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